Local View: Abuse probe too focused on Catholic priests

Lincoln Journal Star [Lincoln NE]

November 25, 2021

By Matt Heffron

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s recent report on his three-year criminal investigation of church-related sexual abuse, which ranged all the way back to the 1930s and focused almost exclusively on the Catholic Church, raises one primary question: “What was the purpose of all this?” It appears to have had very little to do with law enforcement.

Why did the chief law enforcement officer of the State of Nebraska spend so much of the citizens’ tax dollars, and divert his staff from other current criminal investigations, knowing in advance most of the statutes of limitations already had expired?

This was an enormously expensive investigation: 426 subpoenas issued to Catholic churches and schools and 30,000 documents analyzed. After all that, the AG came up with almost nothing new of any significance. Primarily, it was a historical report, just restating what already had been reported by the Church and sensationalized in the media for the last 20 years. It did not result in a single prosecution.

Formerly, I was a federal prosecutor and a division chief for the United States Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, directing wide-ranging grand jury investigations. Before that, I was a statewide prosecutor for the Montana Attorney General’s Office. If I, or the prosecutors working for me, ever had spent so many resources with so little to show for it, there would have been some serious explaining to do.

It is notable that 87% of the incidents discussed in the AG’s report happened more than 20 years ago. That highlights that the Catholic Church’s sweeping changes have produced real results since the scourge of sexual misconduct came to light in 2002, nearly eliminating it altogether over the last few years. These trends have been documented online. That’s why even before starting, the AG’s office presumably knew most of the unprosecuted allegations would be too old to charge.

Yet the AG’s report repeatedly lamented that there might have been some prosecutions if not for the statute of limitations. That’s nonsense. Nebraska statutes currently allow the AG to go back a whopping 24 years to bring such a child-abuse charge. There could not be a fair retrieval of witnesses and evidence going back 24 years, much less even longer. For the sake of fairness, nearly all other Nebraska felonies have three-year statutes of limitation.

The AG also significantly overstated the findings of his report, which is remarkably imprecise for a legal document. The AG repeatedly emphasized the investigation was necessary to save children from criminal child abuse. Yet over a quarter of the complainants in the report were adults at the time. And much of the conduct was not criminal, ranging widely from overly enthusiastic hugging and “boundary violations” at one end to felonious criminal conduct at the other extreme.

Nearly 18% of the total of the AG’s allegedly “substantiated” 258 victims were based simply on a note in the Church’s file of a self-confessed estimate made by a single dead priest … who suffered from Parkinson’s and likely the common related symptom of dementia, and who admittedly cavorted only with college boys. Yet the AG lumped it all together.

Even one provable allegation of child sexual abuse brings gut-churning sadness, and even lesser misconduct causes great discouragement. Most Catholics I know are glad the Catholic Church has been forced to clean house. But it should not be limited to the Catholic Church.

The AG’s report reinforces the very false impression that this is just a Catholic problem. Not by a long shot. Child sexual abuse is dishearteningly widespread across all institutions dealing with a large number of children. But there is a deafening silence from the AG’s office about thoroughly investigating any of these other institutions.

The elephant in the room is that the AG’s investigation appears to be just one more intentional public smack-down of the Catholic Church. If so, the AG’s conduct is egregiously improper for a law-enforcement official: first, in pursuing an already beat-up target, and only one, with an enormous expenditure of public funds; second, in writing a report that does little more than republicize a worn-out, primarily past scandal; third, doing both while knowing in advance there is no legitimate law-enforcement purpose.

Matt Heffron is an Omaha trial attorney for the Thomas More Society, a national nonprofit law firm headquartered in Chicago dedicated to the defense of religious freedom.