Outlook: the Court System and Catholic Clerical Abuse

By Stephen H. Galebach
Washington Post [USA]
March 12, 2004

To date, thousands of Americans have alleged that as children they were sexually abused by Catholic priests. The scope of the crisis had led Stephen H. Galebach, in an article in Sunday's Outlook section, Catholic Clerical Abuse and the Court System, to ask why the American legal system did not bring the crimes to a halt long ago. Galebach, a Catholic who has been involved in many church-state issues over the past 25 years, argues that the failure of the legal system in this instance is a matter of selective non-application of justice -- one based on false notions of what protects religious liberty -- rather than a matter of deficiencies in our laws.

Galebach will be online Friday, March 12 at Noon ET, to discuss his article and the American legal system's role in the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal.

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

Galebach, a Massachusetts attorney in private practice, was a legal policy adviser in the Reagan White House.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Stephen H. Galebach: Welcome to the discussion. I'm out in Seattle on business, it's a typical rainy day here, and I look forward to responding to your questions about my article.

Steve Galebach


Ogdensburg, N.Y.: I am a continuing-to-believe Catholic. I am saddened by the sex abuse scandal especially because the critical mass of evidence proves that Bishops knew and reassigned sexually challenged priests I am a first born Irish-American who was not pressured to become a priest did encouraged to investigate the vocation. I concluded early on that women fascinated me in many ways to the extent that celibacy was not an option. Is it now not apparent that a significant number of prospective clerics knew that a network existed to help the ordained overcome celibacy? We have survived Renaissance Popes, Grand Inquisitors and this too will pass but only if we change the culture in the hierarchy. P.S.The headline read: "Catholic Crimes" why not crimes by Catholics?

Stephen H. Galebach: I too am a continuing-to-believe Catholic. My concern about networks is about criminal networks. Not always, but often, sex offenders who prey on minors tend to network with each other. That phenomenon should be a law enforcement priority, but it has largely been ignored until now. Although there are ways that changing the culture in the hierarchy could help to uncover and dislodge such criminal networking -- for instance bishops telling priests that their vow of obedience means they must disclose any knowledge of predators in the clergy, rather than keep quiet about it -- still it is primarily the responsibility of law enforcement to roll up a criminal network. They know how to do it if once they decide to begin. PS, "Catholic Crimes" isn't the title of my article - I don't know where the headline for the link came from.


Cleveland, Ohio: Although it may be difficult to do so, should action be taken against the organization as a whole, meaning those at the top of the U.S. Dioceses? Because that is who to blame in the end.

Stephen H. Galebach: I believe the preferable approach for law enforcement is to proceed with criminal RICO actions against networks of individuals wherever there is probable cause to investigate. Why individuals rather than a named diocese or national conference? Because this is a matter of criminals infiltrating and sometimes apparently dominating a legitimate organization. It is a delicate operation to remove a brain cancer without damaging the brain.


Washington, D.C.: What should the penalty be in these such cases?

Stephen H. Galebach: Federal RICO laws impose severe prison sentences as well as possible monetary fines. For the type of crime we are dealing with here, jail time is more appropriate than large fines. By analogy, when a trustee engages in misconduct, the question is how to bring the trustee to justice without damaging the corpus of the trust.


Falls Church, Va.: Stephen, you mentioned you were a Catholic. Have you ever questioned your faith of your connections to church at any time during the scandal?

Stephen H. Galebach: No, but I need to say a bit about myself for anyone to understand how that could be true. I entered the church over 20 years ago, after a years-long search that started in a USO library when I picked Cardinal Newman's Apologia off the shelf, and that concluded with me affirming I believe what the Catholic Church teaches definitively as true. Nothing in this crisis has shaken my faith in the central teaching that has been preserved in the church through the centuries, through good times and also very bad ones. It's my faith that drives me not to stay silent in the face of corruption and crime.


Fairfax, Va.: Your intro mentioned you have been involved in many church-state issues over the past 25 years. Can you give examples of the issues?

Stephen H. Galebach: Sure. Just a few quickly: I drafted the Equal Access Bill that guarantees high school students the same rights to meet on school property for religious meetings as they have to meet for other types of meetings. Thought up the idea before joining the Reagan administration. The bill got enacted into law while I was on White House staff, and was upheld by the Supreme Court while I was at Justice. I wrote the Human Life Bill, which lost by one vote in the Senate. I handled a variety of other church-state issues while on White House staff, as well as handling cases in private practice and on behalf of Christian Legal Society in the 1980's and Catholic League in the 1990's. After a stint with an Internet company, I decided to jump back into the church-state fray after the dimensions of this crisis came to light.


Front Royal, Va.: What's to keep the judiciary or legislature from doing away with the confidentiality of confession for child molesters if they decide they can treat the Church like a criminal organization?

If they can bug the mob, why can't they bug the confessional? It seems clear from recent legislative initiatives that doing so would be constitutional, though morally reprehensible.

Isn't this a slippery slope?

Stephen H. Galebach: Priest-penitent privilege is well established in our law, and the sanctity of the confessional is at the heart of that privilege. Any attempt to bug a confessional would be a flagrant violation of the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.


Washington, D.C.: The numbers that have been released about how many children have been molested have been as high as 15,000 over the past 50 years. This number seems a little high. Can you give an accurate estimate as to how many children were affected?

Stephen H. Galebach: That is not my area of expertise. I look at the reports, as you do, and wonder what the full casualty toll is. I am glad that people are starting to do the work needed to understand this.


Springfiled, Va.: A few months before the scandal hit the news, my husband and I returned to his combined high school and seminary for a reunion. His old science teacher, Father... took us on a tour. When he came to the chapel he kind of winked at the guys and told me how they(the priests) tried to keep the seminarians from hitting on the high school boys. My husband was shocked but most other guys just laughed. It made us wonder how wide spread this knowledge was in the the 1960's?

Stephen H. Galebach: You should report that information to law enforcement authorities in the jurisdiction where the high school and seminary were located. Leads such as that sometimes open important investigations, and in any event it is important for the sake of the persons involved that the matter be reported.


Washington, D.C.: I am a life-long Catholic who grew up in a diocese that had a terrible time with this scandal. The bishop moved several priests who were known molesters from parish to parish. To make matters worse, the majority of priests in that diocese appear to be extremely out of touch with reality and seem to drive people away from church. I am fortunate to now live in a diocese that has wonderful priests. When people say that the church is in crisis, I think that the "crisis" involves priests who are out of touch with people, the Church's stance on female and married priests, and the sex scandal. Do you think that there is any hope of resolving this crisis and still maintaining a true Roman Catholic Church in America or is our only hope some sort of separation from Rome? Thank you.

Stephen H. Galebach: If you separate from Rome, I guess you're not in the Catholic Church any more. But that's not what is called for. This is predominantly a law enforcement issue, and it is unfortunate that failure of law enforcement as well as church leadership over a period of decades has led to discouragement and perhaps even despair in some dioceses. We are just now starting to address this problem seriously in America, with new knowledge of the dimensions of the problem, even though that new knowledge is still not complete. Americans can do a lot if we decide to do it.


Capital Heights, Md.: Legally, what kind of compensation do the victims of these crimes deserve? Who pays these costs? Is the money that are given the same money I put into the collection basket every week?

Stephen H. Galebach: Victims of crime deserve compensation. There was a good article in USA Today, Life section, March 11, on how a parish in Springfield, Mass. dealt with the issue of collection. More thought needs to be given, however, to the question of how the church faithful can make good to victims, who are after all children of the church -- they are exactly the same in every respect as my own children. As an ex-Marine I tend to think of these as our wounded in action. We need to pay more attention to how we handle the wounded.


Stephen H. Galebach: Its been good talking with you. I enjoyed talking on the site.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.