Thomas Reese on Holding Bishops Accountable in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

Denise Buchanan, right, a psychoneurologist and founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse organization, and member Leona Huggins, second from right, participate in a protest outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome on the second day of a summit called by Pope Francis at the Vatican on sex abuse in the Catholic Church on Feb. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

When people were first confronted with the extent of Catholic priests’ sexual abuse of children, they were angry. But when, in the early 2000s, they learned that their bishops knew about the abuse and did little to stop it, Catholics and even the wider public were outraged.

As the crisis has rolled on, the demand that the bishops be held accountable for not reporting the abuse to the police, for keeping these priests in ministry and for not protecting children has become the focus of state and church inquiries, from the Vatican to attorney general offices across the U.S.

As I explained in my previous column, thanks to the 2002 Dallas Charter and other reforms, the bishops are much better at protecting children today than they were in the past, but what about the bishops who did not do the right thing in the past, and what about bishops who fail in the future?

Many people, including myself and many survivors, would like to see these bishops thrown in jail.

The problem is that until recently, state and federal law did not require a bishop to report such crimes to the police. It is a general principle of common law that people are not required to report a crime of which they are aware.

Today, most states do make clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse, but that was not true when most of the abuse took place. As a result, it is difficult to prosecute bishops who governed prior to the mandatory reporting laws.

If the state can do little, what about the church?

Bishops attend the second day of the Vatican’s conference on dealing with sex abuse by priests, at the Vatican, on Feb. 22, 2019. (Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP)

Many commentators have noted that while the Dallas Charter dealt with priest abusers, it did not deal with bishop abusers or with bishops who failed to protect children. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which established the Dallas Charter, argued correctly that the USCCB did not have any authority over bishops. Only the pope does.

But the USCCB could have made recommendations to the pope on how to deal with bad bishops. It did not. It was not until the USCCB’s November 2018 meeting that it even discussed a proposal to deal with the problem.

In hindsight, it is tragic that the bishops did not follow the example of the American Red Cross. After it became known that the Red Cross’ regional chapters were distributing HIV-infected blood, the relief agency hired Elizabeth Dole as president in 1991 to clean up the mess. It did not completely solve the problem, but people knew the Red Cross was serious.

If 30 to 50 bishops had apologized, taken full responsibility and resigned in 2002, the church would not be where it is today. The Vatican in those days was adamantly opposed to bishops’ resigning under pressure. It feared the domino effect — if one bishop resigns, who will be pressured next?

This left only one avenue to pursue. Sue.

The first major lawsuit on clergy abuse was against the Diocese of Lafayette, La., where a victim of Father Gilbert Gauthe was awarded $1.25 million in 1986. This and future juries — Gauthe eventually cost the church some $10 million in settlements — felt that the victim deserved compensation but also that church leaders deserved to be punished.

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Source: Religion News Service