Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Has the Catholic Church Put the Clergy Abuse Problem Behind It?
Not By a Longshot: What We Have to Do To Truly Get Past the Issue

Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005

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 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

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 further.

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 prevented 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.

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).

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard