Here's How to Hold Priests Accountable for Abuse

Here's How to Hold Priests Accountable for Abuse
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Why you should care

My First Communion came from an abuser. Now ”mandatory reporter” laws must be used to protect Catholic youths.

Potted plants, the tightness of my shirt collar and the air of celebrity. That’s all I remember from the day of my First Communion. As a second grader, I was supposed to wait until spring. But my mom changed the special day for one reason: So I could receive the holy sacrament from Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who was speaking at a November conference at the Georgia World Congress Center. My school, founded by his religious order, celebrated a birthday mass for him each year, and costumed female students would perform a traditional Mexican dance in honor of his heritage. Maciel was the closest thing to a rock star we had — to us, perhaps even more than the pope himself.

The moment finally came during a two-hour mass. “I received my First Communion from a living saint,” I bragged to my friends for years after. But almost a decade later, we learned the truth: Maciel was not “a living saint” but a rampant child abuser and philanderer. He died as the highest-ranking priest ever to be disciplined over sexual abuse allegations. And in light of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report released Tuesday, which showed more than 300 “predator priests” were credibly accused of abusing more than 1,000 child victims, it’s worth asking again: What can be done?

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The author, receiving his First Communion from Fr. Marcial Maciel at the Georgia World Congress Center in 1999. Maciel was later exposed as a sexual abuser.

Source Courtesy of Nick Fouriezos/OZY

In almost all cases, the statute of limitations for these heinous crimes has long passed. Still, there are ways lawmakers can move forward to try to restore justice, including three major steps, experts say:

  1. Charge priests and those who protect them under “mandatory reporter” laws.
  2. Eliminate or expand the statute of limitations on child abuse allegations.
  3. Institute “look back laws” that provide a brief window to flush out old cases.

Statistically, priests don’t abuse any more than the general population or other groups that come into contact with children often. In almost all cases, priests and church volunteers are already required to attend abuse reporting training (my uncle, a priest, has reported abuse on numerous occasions as it has come up in his congregation).

But the systematic hiding of abuse is particularly troubling in the Church. It’s infuriated the faithful — and increasingly raised calls for Washington to demand accountability. “Somewhere along the way, being a good bishop became synonymous with being a good bureaucrat. As painful as it is, the truth needs to come out at all costs,” says Connor Watts, a Catholic Atlanta attorney. And many priests welcome the Grand Jury report, hoping it cleanses the Church of bad leadership. “Civil authorities should not be afraid when they have a case to bring up charges against the cleric,” says Fr. Paul Algers, a Legion priest. One priest pointed out to me that bishops removed themselves from a “zero-tolerance” charter on clergy abuse passed in June of 2002 (after the infamous Boston Globe report). A main architect of that charter? Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who himself resigned in June after allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups.

Already, advocates and victims of child abuse nationwide have suggested eliminating restrictions on bringing accusations to court. Pennsylvania currently allows child victims to pursue criminal charges until age 50 and civil lawsuits until 30, but the state House Majority Leader Dave Reed announced this week he would bring a bill to the floor this fall that would eliminate the criminal time limit and move the civil lawsuit ceiling to 50.

But those laws have proven difficult to pass and may not progress outside of Pennsylvania. A better national strategy could be to prosecute priests and complicit laity under mandatory reporter laws. In at least 43 states, including Pennsylvania, the clergy are already considered “mandated reporters,” and thus can be charged for not alerting authorities to abuse accusations. Many instances of abuse are open secrets, but, as detailed in the Grand Jury report, church authorities had a “playbook” for concealing the truth. “Above all, don’t tell the police,” the text said, according to the report. “Handle it like a personnel matter, ‘in house.’”

Such obvious obfuscation should be punishable, yet few cases are tried, says Haven Evans, director of training at the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance. The main issue: In cases of “ongoing” abuse, failure to report charges have a statute of limitations too … of only two years. But other states, not just Pennsylvania, should find it easier to adjust statutes of limitations on failures to report abuse. “Even though their policies on paper are showing zero tolerance, we know that in practice, that hasn’t always happened,” Evans says. If you can’t charge the abusers, convict those who hid them from the world.

Some states, from New York and Michigan to Connecticut and Pennsylvania, have recently considered “look-back laws,” providing an immediate one-to-two-year window for decades-old cases to be considered. In Georgia, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who was U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president while drafting the 2002 zero-tolerance charter, opposed a state look-back bill this spring, saying it unfairly targeted the Church over civil professions. ”Why can’t [victims] sue the public school system?” Algers asks.

The Vatican and USCCB promised new reforms after the report this week, but the USCCB didn’t respond to our request for comment. Such laws could cost the Church millions in new lawsuits. Since a reckoning must be had, let it hit the purse as well as the heart. If the Church can’t survive that, then it isn’t a church worth saving.

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