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
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
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.