Child Abuse, the Catholic Church and the Justice of Real Consequences

I was born Boston Irish Catholic, did First Communion and Confession (but balked at Confirmation, I am pleased to note), went to a Catholic junior high and a Jesuit college, and taught at a Catholic high school. The first and only CCD (think “Sunday School”) teacher I ever had was the now-notorious rapist of children, Father Paul Shanley. Suffice it to say, I know the Church, and can still recite the “Our Father” prayer in Latin. Pater noster, qui est en chaelis, etc. etc. etc.

I abandoned the Church years before the pedophilia scandals erupted into public consciousness, but when they exploded two blocks from my house on the doorstep of the cardinal’s residence in Boston, I realized who Shanley was, and how close I had come to danger (I very specifically remember him looking like an animated cadaver as he stood in the light from the window, so I skipped all but the first CCD classes because he creeped me out so much). Behind all the incense and the soaring cathedral walls was an edifice built on hiding the tears of children that were shed because of the actions of trusted priests and the church leadership who protected them.

My relationship with the Church began with fear, then morphed over the years into fearful respect, then respect in disagreement, then disdain, until I finally landed in a cold puddle of perfect horror … and that was all before the Pennsylvania report this week:

A priest raped a 7-year-old girl while he was visiting her in the hospital after she’d had her tonsils removed. Another priest forced a 9-year-old boy into having oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water. One boy was forced to say confession to the priest who sexually abused him.

Those children are among the victims of roughly 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania who molested more than 1,000 children — and possibly many more — since the 1940s, according to a sweeping state grand jury report released Tuesday that accused senior church officials, including a clergyman who is now the archbishop of Washington, DC, of systematically covering up complaints.

Top church officials have mostly been protected and many, including some named in the report, have been promoted, the grand jury said, concluding that “it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”

One of the more insidious aspects of the Church is the manner in which it has boll-weeviled its way into areas involving the most vulnerable among us (besides children). San Francisco in the mid-1990s wanted to give LGBTQ city workers equal benefits, but the Church said no, and threatened to stop performing hospice work for the city’s AIDS patients if the city went through with the plan. Because the Church performed the vast majority of the city’s AIDS hospice work at the time, the city was forced to back down.

The same goes for Catholic Charities, which is hugely into adoptions. In other words, mess with the Church and you risk blowing up the chance for kids to find a good home. I am just cynical enough today to see all this as deliberate. Make yourself indispensable and no one can touch you … which is why what I am proposing will hurt a lot of good people in the short term.

This entire nightmare is the end result of an existence without genuine consequences. The Catholic church has enjoyed that existence long enough.

My proposal: Padlock every Catholic church in the country. Strip them of any tax-exempt status they enjoy and any tax breaks they may get from state and local governments, shut the whole damned thing down, until this unfathomable crime spree is fully and completely adjudicated.

A criminal organization running an illegal operation of such length and breadth would face RICO charges the likes of which no Mafiosi has ever seen. Instead, we get another Pope making another apology.

“Victims should know that the Pope is on their side,” read the Vatican statement of August 16. “Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent. Regarding the report made public in Pennsylvania this week, there are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow.”

Not enough. Not anymore.

At the end of the day, religious institutions are mostly subservient to the state on matters of criminal law. Even the priest-penitent veil is not absolute if a judge so decides. If Catholic priests were planning and executing murders in the churches themselves, and the bishops were conspiring to cover it up, those churches would be deemed crimes scenes and shuttered for the collection of evidence.

Priests have been conspiring to harm children under the roofs of churches for generations, and church authorities have been covering it up. The problem is systemic, from Boston to Pittsburgh to California and who knows where else. Until the whole and absolute truth of this is determined in broad daylight, every Catholic church must be considered a possible crime scene and sealed accordingly. The victims deserve nothing less.

In order to properly pursue these investigations, laws regarding the statute of limitations — the window of time in which a crime can be prosecuted — must be altered to reflect the circumstances. In Pennsylvania, the window for legal action can be as short as two years. The abuse report sternly noted that thousands more victims exist beyond those noted. Some died in the intervening years, others refused to come forward, and virtually all of them have no legal recompense because the statute of limitations expired. When the last large abuse scandal was exposed by the Boston Globe, the church lobbied fiercely against lifting or changing those statutes. That must not happen again.

I do not believe the government should commonly be in the business of shutting down religious institutions, nor do I hold some cruel desire to see Catholic parishioners permanently cut off from their houses of worship. These are grimly uncommon times, and I offer this proposal from a place of desperation. Every other strategy for confronting the systemic, institutionally enabled mass abuse of children — from concerted activism from within the Catholic church, to public shaming, to financial penalties — has failed for decades. The dilemma is as simple as it is horrific: Rapists within the church continue to maintain their access to children, and have not been punished for previous crimes. It must be stopped.

I see this as a very small, weak and unjust proposal because it does not in any way measure up to the unfathomable crimes that have been committed. It is, however, a beginning. The shortfalls that will arise in the absence of church services — and they will be legion — can be made up by individuals and organizations that have not spent decades covering up the serial rape and abuse of thousands upon thousands of children.

Because of the priests who have committed these crimes and the church authorities who collaborated to cover it up, Catholic churches in the United States have surrendered their moral right to remain open and in operation until this matter is resolved down to the last abuser, the last victim and the last collaborator. The churches are all potential crime scenes and must be treated as such. Statutes of limitations must be lifted to free the victims from legal constraint. At long last, it is enough.