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Congressman Mark Foley's Disgrace and Resignation:
What Congress Should Have Learned - And Didn't - From the Catholic Church Clergy Abuse Scandal


Thursday, Oct. 05, 2006

On September 30, notoriously, Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) resigned from Congress after evidence surfaced to show that Foley had sent highly inappropriate instant messages to a teenage boy who is a former congressional page.

Foley, of course, isn't the only one in trouble: Congressional leaders are in very hot water too. Neither House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) nor his staff acted on information about Foley's transgression. And others in the Republican leadership who knew Foley was a potential problem, yet failed to act decisively, include House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-OH); John Shimkus (R-IL), head of the Page Board; Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA), whose page was involved; and Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-NY), chair of the House Republican campaign organization.

Not a single one of these five Republicans did anything more than tell Foley to behave himself - even though they were all hearing reports suggesting the Congressman was conversing with children on the web in disturbing ways. Appallingly, they even allowed Foley to remain as Chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children Caucus.

To its credit, the right-leaning Washington Times has called for Hastert's removal - taking a clear stand that the need to combat pedophilia is a value that transcends petty concerns of political interest. Hastert deserves whatever he gets, as far as I'm concerned, but no one, least of all the Republicans, should think they can get out from under this scandal by scapegoating a few in their leadership.

The Republicans are attempting damage control by arguing that the leadership did not know enough to act. But its members surely should have been wise to the terrible damage child abuse by trusted authority figures can inflict, and the importance of acting to halt and prevent it. Have they learned nothing from the Catholic Church child abuse scandal - which exhibits clear parallels to what happened here?

As in the Clergy Child Abuse Scandal, the Evidence Was Clear, But Ignored

The evidence against Foley was not subtle, nor was it difficult to find. All House leaders had to do, to investigate, was to contact former pages and ask if Foley was a problem.

When they finally did so last week, other pages quickly came forward with even more damning emails from Foley - messages that were just "sick sick sick sick," to quote one of the pages.

The pages had been told to steer clear of Foley since 2001 (at least). And we're supposed to believe the leadership had too little information to justify even a cursory investigation? Sorry -- that cannot wash.

Members of Congress should know by now that sex crimes against children (even when they are in their teens) are extremely serious - and that child predators are typically serial perpetrators. It is not as if childhood sexual abuse never lands on their agenda - they recently, amidst much self-congratulation, passed the Adam Walsh bill, which I discussed in a previous column.

The Catholic Church abuse scandal coverage also underlined the fact that disregarding signs of abuse puts children at risk - with a major charge against the Church being its leadership's callous disregard of the needs of children under the care of its priests.

As in the Clergy Child Abuse Scandal, the Press and Law Enforcement Also Failed to Pursue the Abuse Allegations

Sadly, the House hardly stands alone in keeping Foley's activities a secret. The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times (and likely others) received copies of emails or heard rumors, yet stayed silent. When one page's parents asked that the issue be dropped, editors dutifully dropped it, as though only one child was at risk, which is hardly ever true with child predators.

This, too, mirrors the clergy child abuse scandal - before the Boston Globe finally went public with the story, decades of abuse had already occurred. And even though the Globe deserves credit for breaking the story, its editorial board sat on that story for many months before putting it into print.

Just as so many prosecutors had failed to act against church wrongdoers before the Globe's series, so too did the FBI fail to act against Foley. It was notified of the Foley allegations in July, and did nothing until now. Finally, ABC News revealed the claims, and the evidence supporting them, last Friday.

As in the Clergy Child Abuse Scandal, Children Were the Last Priority

Throughout this scandal, as in the disgraceful Catholic Church clergy child abuse scandal, strong warning signs indicating child abuse were not treated with the deadly seriousness they deserve.

Reynolds says he told Hastert about the issue, but he left it at that. And Hastert, for his part, cannot even remember being told by Reynolds about the reports regarding Foley. To make matters worse, Hastert tried to excuse his forgetfulness by insinuating that this was basically unimportant information lost in the shuffle: "If Reynolds told me," Hastert says, "it was in a line of things, and we were in the middle of another crisis this spring, so I just don't remember that."

Early on, Hastert responded to the criticism of his handling of the matter with a laconic "[w]ould have, could have, should have" - as if the issue were barely worthy of his comment, or his time.

Hastert wasn't the only one to grossly underplay the seriousness of the accusations. Tony Snow, the President's press secretary, first referred to the emails as "simply naughty emails" -- as though they were quaint 1950's pin-up posters, rather than invitations to underage sex (and underage drinking, to facilitate the sex).

No matter where you look in the Catholic Church's scandal, you can similarly find this tone and this attitude. These men are busy - don't bother them with irrelevant details, like children.

As in the Clergy Child Abuse Scandal, Blame-Shifting Attempts Fail to Convince

When the press and public sounded a wake-up call to remind him that this was a very serious issue, Hastert tried to deflect blame for his failures on Foley, claiming Foley had "duped" and "deceived" him. To this day, Catholic bishops and cardinals persistently point to the deviant priests alone, without taking the full measure of their own responsibility for the endangerment of children.

Hastert ought to have been aware that child predators lie all the time, and thus should not have relied on Foley himself as the primary source of information about Foley's own alleged crimes! After all, do police investigations stop with an interview of the alleged defendant?

The key point here is that blame lies on Foley, but it cannot be confined to Foley - any more than blame in the clergy abuse scandal can be confined to the priests who directly abused children.

The motivation of those in power, in each case, was to protect an institution: To save the Church's, or Congress', or the Republican Party's power and reputation. It was also to further secure the power of individual men. It should go without saying that no reputation, and no power, that is built on lies, and on the cover-up of serious crimes, is worth protecting.

The Foley Scandal Redoubles the Need for Hearings on Childhood Sexual Abuse Within Powerful Organizations

Ironically, the House could have easily educated itself about the dangers of child abuse within powerful organizations - about the cover-ups by abusers, the serial natures of such crimes, and about the lasting damage such crimes inflict on their victims - had it only held hearings on the clergy abuse scandal some time in the five years since the Boston Globe broke the Catholic Church's story to the world.

Not to do so, was a craven decision. After all, if the perpetrators and enablers reported by the Boston Globe had been anything other than clergy and church hierarchy, the House members would have stampeded each other to chair hearings. By comparison, look at what happened following the deaths of two girls in Florida after sexual assaults, and what happened after Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping: lightning-quick legal reform, press conferences, and a lot of mutual back-slapping.

Yet with the clergy abuse crisis, we have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of known victims (from multiple religious institutions at this point), and the House members act as though they don't read the papers and as though their staffers don't receive victims' calls. I have documented this phenomenon in my book, God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law; suffice it to say that our elected representatives far too often sacrifice the public good in order to curry favor with the religious vote, a perversely corrupt practice.

Had the House held hearings, its members would have learned enough not to be able - or even to be able to claim in public - to have been "duped" and "deceived" by Foley's lies. Here are a few specific things they would have learned:

(1) They would have learned that child predators are usually "nice guys," whom people trust - and thus that Foley could be a good friend and colleague to them, and a nightmare to children, at the same time.

(2) They would have learned that child predators carefully and patiently "groom" their victims, often using the Internet, so that even if the Foley emails they knew about had, indeed, only been "overly friendly," they might have signaled there was far worse still to come. Where there is smoke there is too often fire, when it comes to child abuse. And here, there was smoke: Asking about the well-being of a particular teen page is disturbing; asking for the page's photo, is more so.

(3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they would have learned that telling a child predator to behave himself, and then sending him back to a workplace full of teens impressed, and perhaps also intimidated, by his high rank, is like chastising an alcoholic and then sending him right back into a well-stocked bar.

Here's something else they might have learned that might have forestalled this scandal - they might have learned that Foley himself was a victim of clergy abuse by a Catholic priest when he was between 13 and 15 years old. We only learned this once he checked himself into a rehab center once the scandal broke. Those involved in the clergy abuse crisis, including victims, their families, counselors, and lawyers, can tell you that when the truth is finally aired, it often lends victims the wherewithal to come forward. If the House had pursued the truth instead of pandering to the religious institution, Foley might have been getting help since 2001, instead of preying on children on the Internet.

Even before the Foley scandal, it was very clear that the House should have held hearings on the clergy abuse scandal. Now, an untold number of victims, the Republican Party, and the institution as a whole are paying the price for this extraordinary abdication of the larger public good. Hold hearings now: It's high time.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

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