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It's Time For A RICO Prosecution of the Catholic Church:
Governor Keating's Forced Resignation Shows the Church Will Not Reform Itself

Thursday, Jun. 19, 2003

Recently, Governor Frank Keating, a former federal prosecutor, compared the Catholic Church's instinct for secrecy to that of La Cosa Nostra. He plainly hit a nerve:

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles called for his resignation.

Keating has been the one pure voice for truth in the Church since the scandal began. Mahony is the Cardinal who has refused to cooperate with Los Angeles prosecutors, or even to fill out the anonymous questionnaire intended to help the Church itself assess the scandal.

Tragically, Keating lost the fight; and Mahony won. The members of Keating's own oversight committee for the Church, the lay National Review Board, joined Mahony in calling for his resignation.

Worse, rather than mounting a defense of Keating, the Church allowed him to be forced out. And it did so knowing full well the public was watching particularly closely, for the Bishops were getting ready for their annual meeting. The message could not have been clearer: True internal Church reform is not going to happen. Clear-eyed critics like Keating will be shown the door.

Keating now no longer heads the Board. In his gutsy resignation letter, he stuck to his guns: "My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate. I make no apology. . . . To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church."

Why did Keating's remarks so deeply anger the Church? The answer is that this reference touched on the Church's own worst, and likely unacknowledged, nightmare: that it is in fact corrupt and that the federal RICO (Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute might be used against it

That prospect is not as unlikely as the statute's title may indicate. RICO has not only been used against the mafia; it has also been used to target apparently legitimate organizations, such as corrupt labor unions, as well. It is now time to use it against the Catholic Church.

Why the Analogy to La Cosa Nostra Was Apt

Imagine a large, wealthy, and hierarchical organization that persists in believing it is above the law. Over many decades, the organization has employed a tradition of blood brother secrecy to keep its illegal actions from being analyzed or criticized in the press, or prosecuted and punished by legal authorities. It employs powerful, adept, and highly-paid lawyers, and resists judicial process whenever it can.

Meanwhile, the organization's leaders are united in a secret bond that requires them to do whatever it takes to protect the organization from scandal. For them, the cover-up of serious crimes is a way of life, a feature of their everyday business.

Those who believe Keating's analogy was overstated, or unfair, should consider that this description fits both the Mafia, and the Catholic Church's approach to child abuse by its own clergy.

Of course, one might object that there are differences between the two institutions. Most obviously, the Mafia is in the primary business of murder and other crime; the Church's primary business has nothing to do with sexual abuse, though it was an accessory to it numerous times over the years.

But that difference doesn't matter, under RICO: Labor unions aren't in the primary business of crime, and they still face RICO prosecutions. Indeed, one major target of RICO is the takeover of a legitimate organization by criminal elements.

One might also object that the harms the Mafia wreaks are greater than those the Church has wrought. But that is a dangerous, and in some way, useless comparison to make: Both institutions have done grievous damage.

Evidence by now has shown that numerous priests in the United States have used their position of trust and power in order to sexually victimize children repeatedly. Those children, many of whom are now adults, have suffered lifelong tortures.

Some have therefore said, correctly so, that the Church has been engaged in the knowing murder of young souls. Years after the physical abuse ends, those souls continue to search for faith and for God within a dark cloud of crushed beliefs and shame.

Their suffering must finally be taken seriously. To disparage it by saying that it isn't "like murder," and thus that the Church is unlike the Mafia, profits no one.

And in any event, the Church need not be the twin of La Cosa Nostra to properly face prosecution under the RICO statute. All it needs to be is what it is: An organization that has repeatedly been used to perpetrate and cover-up serious crimes, including obstruction of justice.

It's High Time For a RICO Prosecution of the Church

RICO is needed, because local prosecutions are not going to suffice. Some brave local and county prosecutors are going after the Church's crimes in the interests of the children who have been hurt so terribly. But others foolishly continue to trust the Church to set things right itself - something it has had the opportunity to do for decades, and never really tried, let alone succeeded in.

Instead, for years, the Church told the newspapers not to report the stories and the prosecutors not to charge the perpetrators and the parents not to report the crimes, because they would take care of it. But they did not take care of it. They simply let the suffering, and the scandal, and the evil fester. So why does anyone believe it can be trusted, now, to effect meaningful internal reforms?

Scattershot local prosecutions cannot by themselves bring the Church to full confrontation with its institutional problem. As in the game of whack-a-mole, the Church has adopted a strategy of using whatever legal means are at its disposal to try to force its problems back underground. Apparently, it hopes that, at some point, it will be able to put down the mallet and wander off to the merry-go-round.

A federal RICO prosecution would force the Church to confront its problems more directly by forcing it to face a federal prosecutorial juggernaut, as opposed to isolated local actions. While worthwhile, commendable, and necessary, these local prosecutions are not enough to prompt the thoroughgoing national, institutional reforms needed.

After all, this is a scandal of national proportions. It affects children in many cities and states. The Church is a national - indeed, an international - and not a local institution. Yet, neither the Department of Justice, nor the local United States Attorneys' Offices, have, to my knowledge, so much as held a news conference.

When the Bush Administration recently - after the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping - pushed legislation to institute a national Amber alert system, the Administration recognized that child abuse is not an isolated problem; it affects all fifty states. Meanwhile, the Administration is pushing for educational reform in the public schools via federal legislation and the private schools via vouchers - seeing, once again, a federal interest implicated in an issue that affects children across the nation.

But now, when it comes to the Church, the Administration hypocritically pretends that the nation's children's interests are no longer of federal concern. In so doing, it has left a nation's worth of children behind - when it had vowed not to leave behind even one.

That may be a serious miscalculation. The votes of Catholics are powerful, but they will not always align with the views of the Church hierarchy. Many Catholics support Church reform precisely because they are devout, and they love the Church, and not those who have betrayed its mission.

The Administration may well have severely underestimated the hunger of the American people--Catholic and otherwise--for justice in this instance. Citizens believe deeply in the rule of law, justice, and fairness. And there are few kinds of conduct more despicable, to the vast majority of Americans, than allowing predatory pedophiles to victimize trusting children, again and again.

Thus, if the Administration ever does the right thing, and uses the RICO statute to go after the Church, it may find that it has done the politically advantageous thing as well. Conversely, if it fails to employ RICO, and the Church continues its intransigence, the Administration may feel the heat from citizens, parents, and others come election time.

Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. An archive of her columns on the Catholic Church's clergy abuse scandal, among other issues, can be found on this website. Her email address is

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