Shielding Clerics from Law Is Wrong

By Mark Holmberg
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
April 28, 2002

For many of you, there's a state law requiring that you notify authorities if you're aware of any allegations of sexual molestation, abuse and neglect involving children.

Granted, there's only a small fine - $500 max - for those violating the seldom-enforced law. You could get in a whole lot more trouble for shoplifting.

But state code 63.1-248.3 mandates that teachers, day-care workers, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, law enforcement, probation officers, Christian Science practitioners (!) and others whose work involves children notify child-protective-services workers about allegations of abuse and neglect.

But the law doesn't apply to members of the clergy.

Which is why Roman Catholic church leaders here, and across the country, weren't breaking the law when they failed to notify social workers or police about allegations of sex crimes committed by their priests and other church workers.

Instead, they chose to deal with the problems internally, sometimes with disastrous results, as we see with the current scandal in Boston that has shaken the Catholic Church all the way to Vatican City.

Church leaders have already settled 50 child-sex-abuse cases involving defrocked priest John V. Geoghan for more than $10 million, with 84 other cases pending, The Boston Globe has reported. The Globe's stories show that Geoghan's superiors shuffled him from one parish to another, even after determining he was a threat to children.

But this cloistered mentality toward sex crimes is hardly new, as we've seen here and elsewhere.

In 1994, an official with the Catholic Diocese of Richmond admitted mistakes were made in the handling of a sex scandal that finally broke into public view when the accused priest shot himself to death five hours after being confronted by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan with years-old allegations.

The Rev. John Hesch's suicide came 6 weeks after one of his alleged victims also killed himself. That young man, a 21-year-old parishioner of St. Augustine Catholic Church, had said he was abused by Hesch as an 11-year-old.

During an emotionally charged meeting at St. Augustine shortly after Hesch's death, I listened to those who tearfully regretted that outside agencies weren't notified when allegations against Hesch began surfacing almost 10 years earlier.

"All of this could have been stopped if someone had stepped in," said a woman who said that in 1985 she notified the principal at Sacred Heart-St. Augustine parochial school and the Catholic Diocese of Richmond of allegations against Hesch.

"I was such a good Catholic," the parishioner said. "I couldn't go to the [civil] authorities."

Hesch vehemently denied the allegations during a 1986 investigation by church leaders. (He repeated his denials in his suicide notes.) He was ordered to receive counseling as he began a series of reassignments - from Virginia Beach to Big Stone Gap, then back to the Richmond area.

Those reassignments still gall Glenn Bozarth, a longtime parishioner at St. Augustine who felt betrayed when he learned one of his sons had gone (without incident) on a youth retreat with a suspected pederast.

"They moved him around to different churches instead of getting rid of him," Bozarth said last week.

He believes members of the clergy should be held to a higher legal standard - not a lesser one - because of their positions as spiritual leaders. "They're up on a pedestal above everyone else - we call them 'Father.'"

The indictment in Massachusetts against Geoghan reads: "The defendant - then a Catholic priest - used his position of trust as a clergyman to develop relationships with families within and outside his parish. Upon gaining the families' trust, the defendant then exploited these relationships to sexually assault their school-aged children."

We're not talking paddycake here. Geoghan allegedly molested some of these children while praying with them.

Pedophilia and pederasty (men seeking sexual gratification with boys) are well-documented disorders, not the isolated sexual expressions of those frustrated by vows of celibacy.

We can argue that some pedophiles and pederasts join the clergy in the hopes that the strict exercise of faith can overcome their destructive urges.

But it would be naive not to recognize that some join the church - and not just the Catholic Church - for the same reason they seek to become teachers, youth counselors, scoutmasters and day care workers: access to - and authority over - their victims.

And to suggest, as Catholic Church leaders did last week, that child molesters can commit just one offense and still be trustworthy is the height of naivete.

(In proposed remedies last week to the current sex scandal, Catholic cardinals announced they will defrock any priest who has become "notorious, and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors." Molesters caught for the first time - those who are "not notorious" - would have to answer to local bishops, who would then decide if the offending priest is a continued threat to children.)

As law enforcement and treatment specialists will tell you, sexual predators typically commit multiple crimes - if not dozens - before they're finally caught.

A 1995 analysis of sex offenders in a Newport News treatment program showed that 59 of them committed more than 15,000 crimes before they were stopped by arrest, according to state officials.

These are also the criminals who are least likely to be rehabilitated and the most likely to reoffend, studies have shown.

Which is why it's imperative they be investigated by law enforcement and child-protective workers and, if appropriate, prosecuted. To shield their identities and crimes by the church, which has paid out millions in what can only be seen as "hush money," guarantees the perpetrators will prey on yet more victims.

Finally, anyone who believes the church is a higher authority, shielded from the laws of the land by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, should ask if it would be appropriate for church officials alone to investigate and punish a member of the clergy who has committed murder.

For that is exactly what's going on - the massacre of innocence.


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