Catholic Priest’s Child-endangerment Conviction Underscores Limits of Law in Abuse Scandal

Washington Post
June 23, 2012

A decade after the clergy sex-abuse crisis erupted, the first Roman Catholic church official has been criminally convicted for failing to alert parishes or police about known predators.

Advocates for children said the verdict Friday against Monsignor William Lynn sends a critical message that diocesan officials who supervise priests must report offenders or face prosecution.

Lynn was secretary of the clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004. A jury in Philadelphia found him guilty of one count of child endangerment but acquitted him of conspiracy and a second child endangerment count.

Lynn was far from the only diocesan official in the United States who kept accused priests in parish assignments. Thousands of case files made public through lawsuits and civil investigations revealed that consistent inaction by church officials in the face of abuse claims in earlier years left a trail of victims in dioceses nationwide. About 16,000 claims have been made against Catholic clergy since 1950, according to studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops.

So, why is Lynn the only American church official convicted so far for letting this happen? Here’s an explanation in question-and-answer format:

Q: Why is it so difficult to successfully prosecute bishops and other church leaders who mishandled abuse claims?

A: Most of the abuse cases that have come to light in recent years involve allegations of wrongdoing from decades ago — far beyond the statutes of limitation for criminal charges and often for civil lawsuits. Since 2002, when the scandal broke wide open with one case in the Archdiocese of Boston, a few prosecutors have struck deals with local dioceses to avoid indictment, and eight grand juries have investigated how local dioceses responded to abuse claims. All the grand jury reports found evidence that church officials consistently protected accused clergy more than children. However, only one such report found enough evidence within time limits to prosecute a diocesan official: the Philadelphia grand jury investigation last year that led to Lynn’s conviction.

Q: Haven’t several states extended the statutes of limitation in response to the abuse scandal?

A: Some states have changed their laws to give victims several more years to file civil lawsuits. Three states — California, Delaware and Hawaii — also opened a one-time window of at least a year for accusers to sue the people who allegedly abused them as children. However, criminal statutes of limitation are a different story. Even if lawmakers extend the time limits now for a criminal prosecution, it wouldn’t apply to old crimes. In California, legislators tried to retroactively waive the criminal statute of limitations for child molestation. The U.S. Supreme Court later threw the law out.

Q: If government authorities can’t prosecute the diocesan officials, can’t the church at least hold them responsible?

A: The toughened child safety policy the bishops enacted in 2002 contains a discipline plan for abusive priests, but not for the bishops who failed to report them to police. Only the pope has authority over bishops, and none has been forced out for mishandling abuse cases from decades ago. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after court files revealed his role in sheltering accused priests. However, Law reportedly did so against the wishes of Vatican officials. Last year, Cardinal Justin Rigali stepped down as Philadelphia archbishop after the grand jury accused him of keeping credibly accused abusers on the job. However, Rigali had already submitted his retirement request to the pope the year before, at age 75, as the Vatican requires.

American bishops have sometimes spoken of “fraternal correction” — meaning attempts to hold each other accountable for child safety. However, it’s almost unheard of for a fellow bishop to question the actions of another in public. “The church itself has not been good at holding bishops or chancery officials accountable,” said Nicholas Cafardi, a legal scholar and former chairman of the National Review Board, the advisory panel bishops formed to help monitor child safety. “We’ve done a good job with priests. We’ve not done a good job with chancery officials who enabled these priests.’”

Q: Does Lynn’s conviction have any impact at all beyond Philadelphia?

A: Yes. Timothy Lytton, a legal scholar and author of “Holding Bishops Accountable,” on how civil lawsuits over clergy abuse helped create pressure to reform, said the verdict is a warning to any church official wavering about keeping his pledge to report child sex-abuse claims to civil authorities and remove offenders from church work. Since the child protection policy was enacted in 2002, some cases have been made public of bishops who have kept accused priests in churches. Later this year in Missouri, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is scheduled to be tried on misdemeanor failure to report suspected child abuse in the case of pornographic photos of children found on a priest’s laptop. Bishops insist that Finn’s case is isolated and “It’s one thing to threaten the financial viability of an institution,” Lytton said of the massive civil settlements dioceses have paid in abuse cases, “but it’s another thing to threaten to send to jail the people who run it.”

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