On Friday, June 22, 2012, Monsignor William Lynn was convicted by a jury on charges of criminal endangerment. The case marks the first time that any official within the Catholic Church has been held criminally responsible for sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
I don’t believe the importance of this conviction can be overstated. Every province in Canada and every state in the United States have laws that require persons in authority to report suspected cases of child abuse. The website BishopAccountability.org has a huge database of American priests who have been publicly accused of sexual abuse.
But until last week, not a single catholic official in charge of any of these priests have ever faced charges about their knowledge or complicity in failing to report these priests to civilian authorities.
Civil lawsuits by priest-abuse victims have uncovered, time and time again, evidence that persons in authority within the Church knew about abuse by priests and failed to report the abuse, or worse, moved the priests from parish to parish allowing them to continue their predatory acts.
Not a single official within the Catholic Church had ever been held accountable for this appalling lack of oversight.
Just Following Orders
One of the more disturbing aspects of the evidence in the Lynn trial, although not particularly surprising to those of us who have been representing victims of childhood abuse for many years, was the testimony that Lynn was ordered to destroy records pertaining to abuse allegations against priests by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.
In other words, Lynn’s defense was that he was just following the orders of his Cardinal.
Search for Truth or Whitewash?
Last year The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report prepared by the John Jay College of Criminology. The report: “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” was supposed to shed some light on the reasons behind the avalanche of abuse claims the Church is facing in the United States.
Unfortunately the report was more of a public relations exercise than a search for truth. The Jay report identified what the authors referred to as “egregious” failures by diocesan leaders to take responsibility for priest sexual abuse and “concerted efforts” to prevent sexual abuse accusations against priests from being reported to the police.
Yet the Jay report completely ignored the question of what role the hierarchy of the Catholic Church played in the priest abuse crisis. For more information, take a look at The Catholic Church and Sexual Abuse: Is the church’s response real action - or window dressing?
The Church’s Rule Book
The Code of Canon Law is the fundamental legal document of the Roman Catholic Church. It codifies the rules, procedures, duties and obligations of the Catholic Church and it’s members.
The Code requires the Church to conduct an internal investigation of any complaints against priests.
The relevant provisions of the Code of Canon Law (1983), are:
•Canon 1717(1) Whenever the Ordinary receives information, which has at least the semblance of truth, about an offence, he is to inquire carefully, either personally or through some suitable person, about the facts and circumstances, and about the imputability of the offence, unless this inquiry would appear to be entirely superfluous.
•Canon 1719 The acts of the investigation, the decrees of the Ordinary by which the investigation was opened and closed, and all those matters which preceded the investigation, are to be kept in the secret curial archive, unless they are necessary for the penal process.
•Canon 489 (1) In the diocesan curia there is also to be a secret archive, or at least in the ordinary archive there is to be a safe or cabinet, which is securely closed and bolted and which cannot be removed. In this archive documents which are to be kept under secrecy are to be most carefully guarded. (2) Each year documents of criminal cases concerning moral matters are to be destroyed whenever the guilty parties have died, or ten years have elapsed since the condemnatory sentence concluded the affair. A short summary of the facts is to be kept, together with the text of the definitive judgment.
•Canon 490 Only the Bishop is to have the key of the secret archive.
The Code of Canon Law, the fundamental legal document governing the rules and procedures of the Catholic Church, establishes a process for investigating, documenting and recording acts of misconduct by priests.
By it’s own internal laws, the catholic church must keep a record of all investigations conducted regarding sexual abuse by priests. The information contained in the “secret archive” in every diocese in Canada and the United States would be the starting point for any criminal investigation into the knowlege of church officials regarding sexual abuse of minors.
In Doe v. Bennett Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Dioceses are legally responsible for sexual abuse by priests because of the power and authority that priests hold – a power and authority created by the Church and demanded of its parishioners.
In Bennett the Court said this about the power of the church:
“The relationship between the bishop and the priest in the Diocese is not only spiritual but temporal.
First, the Bishop provided Bennett with the opportunity to abuse his power.
Second, Bennett’s wrongful acts were strongly related to the psychological intimacy inherent in his role as priest.
Third, the Bishop conferred an enormous degree of power on Bennett relative to his victims”
It is clear officials within the Catholic Church have a great deal of power. How they decide to use that power is something that they need to be held accountable for.
It takes a great deal of courage for abuse survivors to come forward and lay criminal charges. History has shown when one survivor comes forward and lays charges, police inevitably find more victims as survivors, who thought they were the only one to have experienced the abuse, find the courage to come forward and disclose what happened to them.
In the Lynn prosecution it also took a great deal of courage for the prosecutors in this case to proceed with criminal charges against a respected and powerful member of the Catholic Church. Will the results of this prosecution give authorities in other jurisdictions where priests have been convicted of sexual abuse the courage to investigate what, if any, role authorities in the church played in failing to report abuse by priests.
I have asked the question before: Mounting Evidence of Catholic Conspiracy to Cover up Sexual Abuse by Priests?
One Becomes Many
In many cases police find a single initial complaint leads to dozens of victims abused over many years. Will the same thing happen now with investigations into the knowledge of church officials?
Lynn’s conviction means when priests are convicted of sexual abuse, police should consider whether persons in authority aided and abetted the abuse by allowing predatory priests to be moved from parish to parish in order to avoid repercussions for their actions.
A Lesson from Boy Scouts Canada?
Scouts Canada recently acknowledged that they had received hundreds complaints about potentially sexually abusive scout leaders. They hired KPMG to conduct an arms-length audit of their files. The audit determined that Scouts Canada didn’t report suspected cases of abuse to police in up to 82% of cases.
Today Scouts Canada announced that they were turning over all their files pertaining to suspected cases of child abuse to the police.
Officials in the Catholic Church would be well advised to consider taking similar steps in order to meet their obligations under the law as well as their moral obligations to the children who are and were part of their flock.
But don’t hold your breath waiting.