Clergy Abuse

At the meeting of the Catholic Conference of Bishops this week in

Washington, the Church continued to harp on its recent theme that clergy

abuse is behind it. Last year, their former president, Bishop Wilton D.

Gregory, similarly referred to the "terrible history" of child abuse by

priests, as if it were merely an episode from the past.

Perhaps even more offensively, this week the Conference's current president,

Bishop William Skylstad, told his fellow bishops this week that "[t]here is

no question, brothers, that these past few years have taken a great toll on

us." Adding insult to injury, he not only relegated the church's abuse to

the past, but suggested the Church itself was somehow a helpless victim of

its own crimes.

What the Church must do to truly separate itself from this history of abuse,

involves much more than rhetoric alone. It involves revealing to the public

the identity of the abusers that were, and are, in its midst, and who remain

undisclosed. It is abundantly clear that the only way that is going to

happen is if the law forces such disclosures -- Congress should exert

financial pressure on the states to make it happen.

The First Step: Make All Abusers' Names Public

The best science makes it clear that sexual abusers who prey on child

victims usually pursue victims for their entire lives; there is no age limit

for such urges.

For example, the allegation was just made public that 84-year-old Monsignor

Charles J. Schaeflein in Southeastern Pennsylvania committed childhood

sexual abuse as recently as 15 years ago - in his late sixties.

This apparent Pennsylvania perpetrator, however, was missed by the otherwise

admirable Philadelphia grand jury report (on which I consulted). If a

three-year, intensive investigation by a District Attorney intent on getting

at the truth cannot unearth all of the names, you can be certain there are

many not yet known.

As long as dioceses fight to keep even this decidedly non-religious part of

their secret archives secret (the typical litigation stance), current

children will not be safe.

The Second Step: Admit That Abusing Priests, Like All Abusers, May Escalate

Column continues below ?

It is foolhardy to believe that clergy abusers are any different from your

garden variety abuser. They may well be more clever; after all, they opted

for the profession that promised the most blind trust by victims (and their

parents), and found sanctuary in an institution that would rather harbor

pedophiles than acknowledge the truth.

Like all abusers, clergy abusers try to keep their crimes secret. They may

threaten their victims, warning them not to tell anyone.

Victims have recounted stories of priests who threatened them with death,

excommunication, and even burning in hell, if they ever revealed the truth.

And some priests have gone still farther.

The Third Step: Admit that Even Murder is Possible, When Abusers Walk Free

Like other abusers, clergy child abusers may even kill when they feel

threatened by disclosure.

This Monday, two families stood in front of the Hyatt Regency where the

Bishops were meeting and told the story of how, in February 2002, Rev. Ryan

Erickson murdered their sons, Daniel O'Connell and James Ellison.

Apparently, Erickson struck because O'Connell had contacted him to question

him about rumors that he was committing child abuse.

Erickson had collected guns and pornography, had routinely drunk alcohol

with teenagers, and had faced abuse allegations before. And the Church must

have known it: They sent him for psychological counseling three times.

Was this an isolated case? Very unlikely. We know about a murder in

Massachusetts (where the victim was the sexual abuse victim) and about a

murder of a nun in a ritualistic abuse situation in Ohio, among others. The

open question is how many cold cases exist of murders where an abusing

priest was a prime suspect, but no charges were ever filed. It is a sad fact

that it takes a nation to cover up tens of thousands of clergy abuse

victims, and the police often did not complete investigations when the

potential perpetrator was a priest.

The families proposed a five-point plan, and demanded a meeting with the

bishops and eventually the Pope. Of the over 200 bishops present, not a

single one was able to fit into his busy schedule a meeting with the

families.

They left town having met with only the Conference's executive director for

its (laughable) Office of Child and Youth Protection, Teresa Kettelkamp, who

went out on a limb and promised to deliver the families' letters and

pictures of the victims to Bishop Skylstad. No one should hold their breath

that this group is going to take the lead on fighting child abuse or

redressing past child abuse, as I first (and naively) recommended in the

first column I wrote in response to the scandal. The only answer is legal

change.

How the Law Must Change

How can these undisclosed offenders be preventing from re-offending? In a

perfect world (one where bishops reported all abusers to the authorities

before the statutes of limitations lapsed), they would be publicly fired,

prosecuted and sent to jail. Moreover, their names would be published on

Megan's lists in the states so that parents, and their children, and other

potential victims could steer clear.

For the vast majority of perpetrators we know about, it's too late for any

legal action, unless a state passes a law creating a retroactive window

through which victims can file civil suits, as I have advocated in a

previous column. Such civil actions, at least, could result in the public

knowledge of the names of perpetrators not yet made public.

Second, because the states are finding it hard to find their moral compass

on these issues -- and because the Catholic Conference, hell-bent on keeping

the dioceses' remaining secrets, is lobbying like crazy against such

reforms - Congress needs to pass conditional spending legislation that

denies to states medical funding unless they abolish criminal statutes of

limitations for the future, and civil statutes of limitations for the future

and the past. Along with the two families standing outside the Bishops'

conference this week, we all pay an unacceptably steep price for our

ignorance about unnamed perpetrators.

Without these legal reforms, the secrets that put our children in danger

will continue to fester beneath the surface - and the abusers whom the

Church continues to hide in their secret archives, will threaten all of us

as they walk around incognito, like powder kegs just waiting to explode.

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