Missouri Attorney General Refers 12 Catholic Clergy for Prosecution

By Elizabeth Dias
New York Times
September 13, 2019

Attorney General Eric Schmitt of Missouri will refer a dozen men who previously served as Roman Catholic clergy for potential criminal prosecution following a yearlong statewide investigation.

The Missouri attorney general will refer a dozen men who previously served as Roman Catholic clergy for potential criminal prosecution, his office announced on Friday after a yearlong statewide investigation into clergy sexual abuse.

The investigation found that 163 priests or clergy members were accused of sexual abuse or misconduct against minors.

“Sexual abuse of minors by members of Missouri’s four Roman Catholic dioceses has been a far-reaching and sustained scandal,” Attorney General Eric Schmitt said at a news conference Friday morning. “For decades, faced with credible reports of abuse, the church refused to acknowledge the victims and instead focused their efforts on protecting priests.”

Mr. Schmitt, a Republican who is also Catholic, said he believed that his 12 referrals for prosecution were more than any other attorney’s general investigation so far.

In one case being referred for prosecution, a priest is reported to have shared a bed on “numerous instances” with young children before the diocese placed him on leave in 2016, according to the report.

In another, a priest was allowed to return to ministry after a 2015 allegation of “detailed unwanted and inappropriate hugging and kissing of an elementary school aged child.” The priest apparently left the country this year, the report says.

About 80 of the accused men are now deceased, and 16 were previously referred for local prosecution. In Missouri, the attorney general does not have the authority to prosecute these cases directly and so must refer them to local prosecutors.

Before the report was released, all four Catholic dioceses conducted their own investigations and produced their own lists of priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, also totaling approximately 160 names. The attorney general’s office did not provide a breakdown of which names were original to its report.

Investigators heard from more than 100 victims and spoke directly with 45 victims or their families, according to Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the attorney general. “We did have one priest who had 21 victims come forward, so we can assume the number is in the hundreds,” he said of the number of victims.

The investigation was also limited to a review of diocesan files and did not include files kept by religious orders, like the Jesuits or Dominicans.

Mr. Schmitt also issued “concrete recommendations” for the church, including that dioceses maintain records for priests in religious orders and that the church’s independent review boards, which assess sex abuse allegations, comprise only lay people.

“Ultimately it’s up to the faithful and the community to hold the church accountable for what they’re doing,” Mr. Nuelle said.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis said in a statement that “the Archdiocese of St. Louis remains committed to working with authorities, to bringing healing to victims and their families, and to ensuring a safe environment for all of our children.”

In the aftermath of the report, some advocates for victims expressed worry that the attorney general did not go far enough in his investigation.

“He is implying that bishops have already come fully clean with their lists of credibly accused,” said David Clohessy, the former longtime executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which is based in St. Louis, where he now serves as the group’s Missouri leader. “He should be trying to prod the dioceses to disclose more names and pry from them those names.”

Rebecca Randles, a lawyer who has represented some 300 clients who have alleged that Catholic clergy in Missouri sexually abused them as minors, raised concerns that the investigation did not hold top church leaders accountable for failing to report child abuse cases to civil authorities in the past, which could result in misdemeanor charges. “Why didn’t they refer them for prosecution?” she asked.

Mr. Nuelle, the spokesman for the attorney general, explained that investigators “wanted to focus on the direct perpetrators of the alleged crimes.”

The state’s previous attorney general, Josh Hawley, a Republican who was elected to the United States Senate in November, opened the investigation last summer, after an explosive Pennsylvania report alleged that bishops and other church leaders had covered up widespread child sexual abuse over several decades. That report, which was the result of a two-year grand jury investigation, stated that more than 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children over decades, and has resulted in two convictions.

Attorneys general in at least 17 other states plus the District of Columbia also opened similar investigations in the wake of the Pennsylvania report.

In Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, has brought charges against seven priests in her statewide investigation, and she has promised to arrest and charge more.

In West Virginia, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, took an unusual approach and filed a lawsuit in March accusing church leaders of violating a consumer protection law because they “knowingly employed pedophiles.” He is currently arguing for the judge to advance the case, following the church’s motion to dismiss it.

In Illinois, former Attorney General Lisa Madigan released a preliminary report of her office’s findings last year before leaving office. That report stated that the Catholic Church had withheld the names of at least 500 priests accused of sexual abuse of minors.

Nationwide, victims’ advocates and law enforcement officials have grown frustrated as widespread public outcry over sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Church has produced little legal or financial accountability. Prosecutors often face challenges pursuing criminal charges in sexual abuse cases, especially as statutes of limitation often restrict the ability to prosecute allegations of abuse that happened decades ago.

More than a dozen states this year have significantly extended statutes of limitation laws in cases of sexual abuse, most notably in New York, where the new Child Victims Act went into effect last month and allows accusers to sue until age 55. Facing a wave of sexual abuse claims, the Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy protection on Thursday.

Mitch Smith and Adeel Hassan contributed reporting.








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