Last Friday I submitted a “Commentary” to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. As is the case with a recent Letter to the Editor of The New York Times, the commentary hasn’t been published (and I don’t think it will be). So, I’m sharing it here:
Within the past week, two noteworthy events occurred in the ongoing battle to hold local diocesan-level leaders accountable for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. First, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for mishandling abuse claims and its failure to protect children from predatory priests; Choi noted that he will file civil charges too (“Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis charged with ‘failing to protect’ clergy abuse victims;” June 6). Second, Pope Francis announced the creation of a Vatican tribunal that will listen to cases against bishops who negligently failed to take appropriate action against priests and others in their diocese who sexually abused minors, though specific policies and punishments haven’t been solidified (“Pope creates tribunal for cases of bishops who fail to protect children from pedophile priests;” June 10).
The charges against the Archdiocese and the creation of the tribunal are important first steps in increased accountability for the Catholic Church, especially its leaders. In a 2008 article from Criminal Justice and Behavior, Alex Piquero and his coauthors noted that critics of the Church have long-perceived its officials as “secretive and inaccessible” even after the creation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by U.S. Bishops in 2002. With the new tribunal and his July 2014 apology to six victims of sexual abuse, it appears Pope Francis is trying to change that narrative. Though, more action must be taken by district attorneys throughout the United States because the culpability of upper-level officials is not unique to leaders from St. Paul and Minneapolis; it has been a systemic problem for generations in dioceses throughout the U.S.
Kendra Bowen, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University, and I have conducted multiple retrospective analyses of Church documents from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN (Diocese of Saint Cloud). We also have conducted preliminary analyses of files from the archdioceses in Chicago and Los Angeles. In one analysis of the archdiocese in Milwaukee that Bowen and I conducted (along with James Bowers of Saginaw Valley State University), there were many instances of Church officials actively dissuading families or others within the Church from contacting personnel boards or law enforcement officers. The most shocking example involved a priest on court-ordered probation who allegedly violated that probation by molesting a young boy while fishing. In the priest’s file was correspondence from an unnamed diocesan official who wrote, “I would try to keep the lid on the thing, so no police record would be made.” Later in the entry the official wrote of attempts to convince the victim’s mother to not file a report with local law enforcement. Documentation from St. John’s Abbey reveals a similar decades-long pattern of concealment by Church leaders. In a 1976 letter from the Abbot to the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he expresses hope that details of a sexually abusive monk do not become public so that a scandal does not ensue. In 1990, the Chancellor sent a memo to several administrators that detailed allegations against a monk. The Chancellor warned of the negative ramifications that would come if the accusations were publicized; namely, one of the affected parishes was set to begin a capital fund drive in celebration of its 100th anniversary. Likely, the Chancellor did not want to disturb fundraising efforts.
In addition to containing evidence of cover-ups by high-ranking diocesan leaders, these files also detail the extent priests and Church officials went to in order to deflect blame for these crimes. Files show that in many instances, those affiliated with the Church would deny responsibility for the crimes that occurred. In some cases, it was the priests who attempted to justify their behaviors by blaming drugs, alcohol, their parents, or their immaturity. Yet, more systemically across dioceses, Church administrators did not attempt to hold offenders legally responsible for their crimes. Instead, the prevailing response was to send an abusive priest away for treatment and then transfer him to another parish, while failing to notify those in the new parish about past allegations. It can be hypothesized that by failing to hold individual priests responsible for their behaviors immediately, the bishops and other leaders engendered a sense of impregnability in the priests that led to future offending and countless victims. For this reason, the decisions by two wholly different oversight agencies – the Ramsey County Attorney and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – to address the historical lack of accountability that dioceses and their leaders are subjected to, comes as welcome news. I am hopeful that more prosecuting agencies follow Choi’s path and that the Pope’s newly-formed tribunal effectively punishes leaders whose failure to lead led to disastrous criminal consequences.