I was raised in the Catholic Church and it pains me to write this article. What hurts me, even more, is that countless children endured sexual abuse while the Church did nothing.
Recently, there has been an outpouring of admissions that the Catholic Church received “credible claims” of sexual abuse against thousands of priests. The Church itself estimates that there are tens of thousands of victims, but I don’t think that even scratches the surface.
Catholic Dioceses Are Starting to Release the Names of Sexually Abusive Priests
Soon after the Roman Catholic dioceses of Richmond and Arlington, Virginia released the names of nearly 60 priests who the Church deemed were “credibly accused” of raping and molesting children, the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa released the names of another 28 priests who were “credibly accused” of sexually abusing more than 100 boys and girls. One diocese at a time, the Church is slowly trickling out the names of priest sex abusers.
Of the three other Roman Catholic dioceses in Iowa, two had already released the names of credibly accused rapists and molesters. One of the Iowa priests allegedly confessed to abusing more than 50 boys over a period of 20 years. In the past, the Catholic Church has defined “credibly accused” to mean that a priest had more than one accuser. Priests who have had only one person accuse them of sexual abuse are not considered to be credibly accused.
Nationwide, Catholic dioceses have named thousands of priests and others that are suspected child abusers. As of January 2019, more than 100 U.S. dioceses had either named or were planning on naming credibly-accused abusers. In addition, law enforcement agencies have launched roughly 20 state, federal, and local investigations of clergy abuse.
The Problem is Way Bigger Than Reports Suggest
A Catholic Church-commissioned report in 2004 said that more than 4,000 U.S. Roman Catholic priests faced sexual abuse allegations in the past 50 years. These cases involved more than 10,000 children – most of whom were boys. I believe that this number simply scratched the surface. According to U.S. child abuse prevention organizations, roughly one in every ten children is sexually abused before the age of 18. Most abusers are family members or other trusted adults, like priests and church employees.
Reporting sexual abuse, especially when the predator is a respected community member, is difficult. Many survivors are too scared to report the abuse during childhood and too ashamed or afraid of not being believed when they are older. Unfortunately, silence helps these predators avoid accountability.
Reporting an abusive priest or pastor is an important step in the healing process, may lead to prosecution and penalties, and protect future generations. When you report childhood sexual abuse, your allegations may also reinforce a pattern of abuse and result in the diocese’s acknowledgment of “credible accusations” against the abusive priest.
Other factors also contribute to the underreporting of clergy abuse. First, some of these priests died before this new period of transparency. Others are still being protected by dioceses that refuse to release information about childhood sexual abuse. For example, Sioux City Bishop Lawrence Soens, was accused of abusing children while he was stationed in different dioceses which have not chosen to publish the names of abusers. Finally, any priests that appeal to the Vatican are not listed as credibly accused pending their appeal.
As the Iowa story suggests, many of the priests abused multiple victims – one as many as 50 kids. The number of children who were brutally terrorized by abusive priests must be staggering. There are also reports of priests raping nuns and assaulting deaf students.
The Problem is Not Limited to the Catholic Church
Anyone who thinks that this problem is limited to the Catholic church is dead wrong. This story has played out in numerous churches, as well as youth and sports organizations.
Last week, the New York Times published an article by Nicholas Kristof about rapists in the Baptist church. The story begins with the tale of a pastor who sexually assaulted two teenage girls in his church, served seven years in prison, registered as a sex offender, and then was allowed to return to the pulpit at a series of nearby Baptist churches.
An investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News found that the Southern Baptist Convention repeatedly tolerated sexual assaults by clergymen and church volunteers. The Chronicle found 380 credible cases of Baptist church leaders and volunteers engaging in sexual misconduct, with a pattern by the church of blaming the victim, encouraging victims to get abortions, and forgiving the molesters. According to Kristof, “[t]hese new scandals provoke fresh nausea at the hypocrisy of religious blowhards like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who thundered at the immorality of gay people even as their own Southern Baptist network tolerated child rape.”
What is the Solution?
Last week, Pope Francis convened a summit of Catholic leaders from around the world for a four-day meeting to address the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Church in the United States, Australia, Ireland, Chile and across the world. The Pope’s opening remarks were strong and were praised by survivors’ rights advocates. But, at the end of the summit, the Church offered mostly words and no action.
Many church abuse victims advocates conclude that the scourge of church sexual abuse is due to an entitled male-only clergy, children taught to be submissive in church, and lack of accountability. As Kristof points out, the irony is that “Jesus and the early Christian church seem to have been very open to women.” Jesus entrusted Mary to provide religious instruction to his disciples, yet churches like the Catholic Church prohibit women from being priests.
I believe that the Church must:
- Adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward priests and take all accusations seriously
- Turn all accusations of sexual assault over to law enforcement authorities
- Allocate significant resources to counseling for victims and sexual abuse prevention programs
- Women and married men should be allowed to become priests
In addition, the states should follow the example set by New York, which recently enacted the New York Child Victims Act. The Act increases the statute of limitations (i.e., the time deadline) for filing civil cases of child sexual abuse until the age of 55. The Act also includes a one-year window during which victims of any age or time limit can come forward to prosecute or sue. Click on this link for a State by State guide on Statutes of Limitations for childhood sex abuse cases.
These church and legal reforms are necessary not only to protect the innocent victims of monstrous sexual predators, but also to enable the churches to survive.
Understand Your Legal Rights
At Phelan Petty, we support survivors of sexual abuse and admire their courage for coming forward. We believe that the institutions that allowed the abusers to remain in a position of power should be held fully accountable. If you would like more information about your legal options, please call our office at (804) 980-7100for a confidential, no-cost discussion with one of our attorneys. You may also complete our online contact form.
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Michael Phelan is a Virginia trial attorney who practices with a special focus on traumatic brain injury (TBI) cases, pharmaceutical and medical device claims, product liability cases, and truck accidents. Michael’s peers have consistently recognized him for his excellence as a trial lawyer, and his clients have praised him for his commitment to deep research, his outstanding communication skills, and his sincerity and dedication.