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Letter to the Editor – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In early-August the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the creditors committee for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee felt the $21M settlement between the archdiocese and victim-survivors of priest sexual abuse was “the lesser of two evils” and that the committee felt “forced into a corner” in agreeing to the terms. The chairperson of the creditors committee also indicated that the archdiocese sought to throw out as many cases as possible. Altogether, 570 victims filed claims and the archdiocese agreed to compensate 330 of them; the chairperson noted, “We had to fight to get that number to 330.”

In reading this account, I was reminded of a statement in one of the priest files from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that we analyzed. The file contained information about an allegation of abuse against a priest who was already on court-ordered probation. In the file, an unnamed diocesan official wrote of “keeping the lid” on the accusation – essentially not telling anybody – so that formal law enforcement and other parishioners and parents would not be notified.

The connection between the past instance of covering up abuse and the current chairperson’s perception of the archdiocese’s legal strategy inspired me to write a Letter to the Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (As an aside, I have penned a commentary to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a letter to the editor of the New York Times that went unpublished, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything to come from my submission.) However, I was contacted by a representative of the Journal Sentinel yesterday and notified that the Letter would be published today.

Here is a link to the Letters page; my letter is the second one down: http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/letters-b99562485z1-322885961.html

Unpublished Commentary Submitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune

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.

Unpublished Letter “To the Editor” of The New York Times

Last Thursday I submitted a letter to The New York Times. It wasn’t published, and I don’t think it will be. Thus, I’m sharing it here:

To the Editor:

Pope Creates Tribunal for Bishop Negligence in Child Sexual Abuse Cases” (June 10) discusses Pope Francis’ approval of a new board that can hold bishops accountable for concealing allegations of abuse against children. I applaud this announcement as well as the criminal charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for mishandling sexual abuse claims (“Catholic Archdiocese in Minnesota Charged Over Sex Abuse by Priest;” June 5). These efforts are a long overdue first step at holding upper-level diocesan officials accountable for their lack of action, though I understand the skepticism of victim-survivors and their advocates who ask if it will really make a difference

I think it will. Scholarship by my colleagues and I suggests these cover-ups are not isolated to bishops in this one archdiocese; rather, it is systemic. Retrospective analyses of files of abusive priests in Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota provide ample evidence that some bishops knew of these offenses and did little to rectify them. I am hopeful that this policy and these criminal charges will help prevent future wrongs.