Advocates for children recently celebrated the Seattle Archdiocese releasing the names of 77 church employees who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse. But advocates with a deep knowledge of the Catholic Church’s many scandals and manipulations regarding child sexual abuse see the announcement as too little, too late.
Releasing of the names of offenders isn’t terribly satisfying, nor does it seem as useful as arrest and incarceration. There is no evidence that sex offender registries prevent child sexual abuse. However, Statutes of Limitations on child sexual abuse keep sexual abuse survivors out of court after they hit a certain age, usually close to 18 (in Washington it’s now age 30 for criminal court or 21 for civil court).
Statutes of Limitation for property crime serve a purpose, but sexually abused children need, on average, 21 years to be able to talk about their victimization. Statutes of Limitation are the biggest single reason 90% of those who sexually abuse children are on the streets, unencumbered by the sex offender registries (any wonder why they don’t work?) and abusing children without fear of consequences.
So, it appears public disclosure of these abusers’ names, or indefinite secrecy, were the only two options available. In that case, disclosure is better than nothing. When the names of credibly accused abusers are released, it means parents, neighbors and potential employers can check them as they vet teachers, coaches, babysitters and anyone else who is going to be a part of their child’s life.
Unfortunately, a sexually abusive priest who is laicized has as much access to children as anyone else. Laicized priests are free to marry, to become biological, adoptive or foster fathers, to teach in public schools, coach, or do anything else imaginable to be around children. When the church laicizes a priest, they are saying “we will not tolerate this priest’s sexual abuse in our church”. This is certainly better than saying “we condone this priest’s continual sexual abuse of children and will move them from one diocese to another for the duration of their career”, but it’s a poor replacement for the solution that can make a real difference; arrest and imprisonment.
And this is where the Catholic Church has committed its greatest sin. In order to prevent arrests, lawsuits, and the expense and public disclosure of secrets that comes with that, the Catholic Church fights tooth and nail against Statute of Limitations reform. Their argument against it boils down to “it is too expensive for us to experience consequences for our actions”. I have never seen this argument work in any other context, but it becomes more palatable to politicians as the church pours huge amounts of money and influence into making it.
Most people agree the Church’s “recycling” of sexually abusive priests is horrific, and the wide-spread attention this practice has garnered over the years has likely contributed to their diminished financial and social capital. Their involvement in thwarting Statute of Limitations reform is less well known, but in some ways more reprehensible. Any business has some desire to cover their tracks and protect their own best interest. But clergy abuse represents only about 3% of child sexual abuse. Meaning the Catholic Church’s lobbying against SOL reform helps not only child rapists within their ranks, but everywhere else.
The remarkable thing about the Seattle diocese’ releasing of names is that it isn’t the direct result of a major lawsuit. It happened twelve years after it this course of action was recommended to the Archdiocese. But it’s only two months after the movie “Spotlight” has brought the Catholic church’s long-standing commitment to secrets and self-preservation to the forefront of America’s consciousness, and conscience. It could be this is a PR effort for the Church to look like they have mended their ways, so they can continue hiding their sins.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.