Did Catholic Church Abuses Amount to “Organized Crime”?

Neal Huff as sexual abuse activist Phil Saviano, in Spotlight.

The Catholic Church has been trying desperately to suggest that the days of rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests and subsequent cover-ups by bishops are a thing of the past and that the church has moved into a new, more transparent future. But to paraphrase a classic mob movie, just when they think they’re out, they get pulled back in.

First, it was Spotlight’s focus on the Boston-area abuse scandal that proved to be the tipping point for public awareness of widespread abusive priest-shuffling. It also reminded people of just how hard senior Vatican officials like Cardinal Bernard Law worked to keep the church’s complicity covered up.

And just when the publicity over Spotlight’s Academy Award dies down, now comes a hard-hitting report chronicling 50 years of abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese in Pennsylvania. A state grand jury report determined that hundreds of children had been abused by at least 50 priests. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Hundreds of children were molested, raped and destined to lasting psychological trauma by clerics whose abuses were covered up by their bishops, other superiors and even compliant law-enforcement officials in Blair and Cambria counties.

It’s the conspiracy nature of the long-running pattern, with both church officials (including two consecutive bishops, and local authorities, including police, judges and district attorneys) colluding to cover up abuse, that led the authors of the report to call the whole mess “soul murder.”

One state legislator is calling for a RICO investigation of the conspiracy, calling it “nothing less than organized crime.”

Despite the pledges by Pope Francis and other Vatican officials to take a zero-tolerance position on abuse and to make a full reckoning of sins of both omission and commission, it appears that the church is still dedicated to protecting its power and privilege over seeking justice for abuse victims. The New York Times reports that lobbyists for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference have been working overtime to quash a move to open a “window” that would allow previous abuse victims to sue under a bill moving through the legislature that would remove the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes and allow victims to sue past the current limit of their 30th birthday.

On one hand, the Vatican is happy to promote its new anti-abuse expert with a high-profile interview with Crux. But on the other, on the ground where it counts, it still flexes its muscle to block a full reckoning with the past—even if financial settlements are an imperfect means of justice.

And in case there’s any doubt that a reckoning is still needed, some 250 additional victims have come forward in Altoona-Johnstown just since the release of the report in March. But due to the church’s lobbying, it doesn’t appear their voices will be heard. On Tuesday, the abuse bill passed a House committee with the window for past abuse cases firmly slammed shut.