Presidential Commission could end suspect grand jury reports on abuse

Presidential Commission could end suspect grand jury reports on abuse

A Presidential Commission to investigate the Church's sexual abuse scandals could be an alternative to a welter of secretive and sometimes politically driven grand juries.

News Analysis

A blockbuster article published by Commonweal magazine this week has taken a critical look at the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical abuse released last summer, and claims it is “grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust.”

This was not a whitewash – the author, Peter Steinfels, is one of the most-respected reporters on the religion beat and wrote a column for the New York Times from 1990-2010. He’s also generally seen as on the liberal side of most internal Catholic debates, and definitely not an apologist for the institution.

The Pennsylvania report, which appeared in mid-August, identified more than 300 predator priests over a 70-year span and more than 1,000 child victims.

The grand jury also accused the Church leadership of ignoring the victims, saying they “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all.”

The report, coupled with the announcement of a credible accusation of the abuse of a minor leveled at now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick along with other allegations of sexual misconduct, ignited last summer’s wave of new clerical abuse scandals.

In his article, Steinfels complains about the use of a grand jury – which does not employ the standard rules of evidence used in a court, is secretive, and can be used for political purposes – to compile the report, saying it is “ironic that people raising perfectly legitimate questions about the accountability of bishops should overlook questions about the accountability of investigating grand juries.”

Most importantly, he says that if you read the entire report, as opposed to the shocking examples of abuse put near the beginning, it actually shows that the bishops have done a good job in dealing with abuse since the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was implemented in 2002, although he noted it has “not worked perfectly, not without need for regular improvements and constant watchfulness.”

Steinfel’s piece comes as several other states have announced they will be doing their own investigations into historical child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, even as fresh cases of sex abuse keep cropping up, such as the recent execution of a search warrant in Houston, the home of the Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Despite the effectiveness of the Dallas charter – and there is a world of difference between now and 17 years ago – there is definitely a sense that there is unfinished business in fighting abuse.

Politicians seem to sense it, too. If a generation ago, attorneys general wouldn’t go after the Church for fear of offending the Catholic vote, now they are launching investigations with the full support and urging of the people in the pews.

Even if the Pennsylvania report was, as Steinfels contends, unfair, it still shined a light on the ugly practice of cover-ups, clergy reassignments, secret payouts and lies practiced by bishops for decades.

As other states begin their own investigation, the U.S. Church is at risk of facing dozens of more Pennsylvania reports, each one with the same problems pointed out by Steinfels.

Is there a better way to come to terms with this history, without the political grandstanding that accompanied the Pennsylvania report?

In the United Kingdom, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse was established by the British Home Office – which oversees similar areas as the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security – in 2014. It is independent and does not answer to the government.

It is currently investigating allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, among other institutions in England and Wales. (A similar inquiry focused on care institutions has been established in Scotland.)

The inquiry has the power of subpoena and is focused on examining what went wrong and why, and it will make recommendations on what must be done differently in the future to better protect children.

The inquiry also allows victims and survivors to share their experiences and help contribute to the recommendations the body will eventually produce. The testimony is not secret, but victims can remain anonymous.

Although some of the testimony has made headlines – such as the allegations against J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, Father John Tolkien – the Church in the UK hasn’t been subjected to the same media storm as the United States.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols faced tough questions over his handling of abuse cases when he was Archbishop of Birmingham, but he was not forced to resign like Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington after his time in Pittsburgh was put under the microscope by the Pennsylvania grand jury.

There are several reasons why this is the case: The Anglican Church and other religious and secular institutions are also under investigation, so the focus isn’t entirely on the Catholic Church; the inquiry isn’t run by politicians, so is less likely to used as campaign fodder; and the point of the exercise isn’t to seek a condemnation of the past, but to learn from it.

In 2002, the Church in the U.S. tried to do something similar, the National Review Board commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York to conduct research, summarize the collected data, and issue a summary report on the abuse crisis which was released two years later.

However, it wasn’t fully independent, since it was commissioned by a board created by the bishops, and it didn’t have the power of subpoena.

A commission appointed by the U.S. government – such as the ones that investigated Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, and 9/11 – would have those powers. Although the reports can later be politicized, these presidential commissions have for the most part been run professionally and issued sober, comprehensive documents.

If the bishops asked for such a commission to be established, it would allow them for once to get ahead of the issue and possibly take the wind out of the sails of any state politician hoping to ride the clerical abuse crisis to the next election. It could also forestall dozens of different reports with different recommendations given to the Church in separate states.

This is not to say such a commission wouldn’t produce a report that won’t be a major blow to the Church, but it would be better than the death by 50 cuts it’s facing now.

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