I remember the moment when the gravity of the Catholic hierarchy’s long-term cover-up of rampant sexual abuse within the priestly ranks was driven home to me. It was in 2010, and I was conducting an interview for my book Good Catholics with the noted Catholic feminist theologian Mary Hunt. We were discussing her reflections regarding what had, at that point, been a decades-long adversarial relationship with the powers-that-be in the Catholic Church, dating from when Hunt was one of the leaders of an effort in the mid-1980s to assert the validity of a pro-choice position in the face of an increasingly authoritarian Vatican. “We thought there were differences in theology that we were grappling with,” Hunt told me. “We thought we were dealing with people of good will.” But it’s what she said next that sent a chill down my spine. “What we didn’t know then was that we were up against criminal behavior—people participating in criminal behavior and ignoring criminal behavior.”
As last week’s move by the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the abuse of children and young adults by Catholic clergy (and the subsequent cover-up by bishops) makes clear, Hunt was prescient.
Given the ever-widening sexual abuse crisis in the Church, it can be difficult to find an inflection point. The news that former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been serially abusing young men and seminarians for decades was eclipsed by the damning Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed decades of abuse and cover-up in dioceses throughout the state. This in turn prompted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington—Wuerl helped formulate the Church’s rules for preventing sexual abuse by priests—for his role in shuffling predator priests around the state when he was the head of the Pittsburgh diocese.
But the recently announced U.S. attorney’s investigation marks a major turning point and a potential moment of reckoning in the long-running and sordid sex abuse scandal that first burst into public view with the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation in early 2002. The Justice Department investigation promises to fundamentally reshape the relationship between the U.S. Catholic Church and civil law enforcement authorities. To date, no matter how messy the scandal became, civil authorities largely left the Church alone to clean up its own mess. While individual priests have been charged with crimes as the result of abuse, and culpable prelates like Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law were shuffled into retirement, the larger question of criminality on the part of the Church’s leadership has been off the table. It was, admittedly, an odd arrangement, with the U.S. government in effect deferring to the government of the Catholic Church, an arrangement neither codified in the Constitution nor available to any other religion.
But if this federal investigation does go forward—and it should be noted that it’s coming from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, so it could be impeded by higher-ups in the Justice Department—it would be a landmark moment as the federal government usurps the authority that Vatican has long claimed to police its internal affairs.
And the nature of the investigation reported by the AP, which spans seven of the state’s eight dioceses, suggests just how deep such an inquiry could go. According to the Washington Post:
The subpoenas seek years of internal records, including any evidence of church personnel taking children across state lines for purposes of sexual abuse, any evidence of personnel sending sexual material about children electronically and any evidence that church officials reassigned suspected predators or used church resources to further or conceal such conduct.
David Hickton, who was U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2017, told CNN’s Daniel Burke that this suggests the prosecutors could be planning a racketeering case against Church leaders: “Human trafficking, child pornography, the Mann Act—any of these could be the underlying crimes for RICO.”
The leveling of criminal conspiracy charges against members of the Catholic hierarchy would be a stunning denouement for men who, until recently, regularly met with U.S. presidents and influenced public policy on everything from women’s access to contraception to the simmering argument about transgender identity. It would signal that after a century of acquiescence to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church as a separate political structure operating with impunity outside of the U.S. legal system, U.S. civil authorities no longer consider the Church above the law.
As Emma Green notes in The Atlantic, the scope of the investigation “will test the Catholic bishops’ stated resolve to give secular authorities full control and transparency in abuse investigations, as the moral and legal stakes of the crisis continue to grow.” This will be especially important if subpoenas seek the contents of so-called secret archives that may hold previously unreleased information about efforts to cover up the activities of abusive priests.
And despite pledges of transparency, there are indications that the Church will not surrender without a fight. Even as bishops in Pennsylvania promised to cooperate with civil authorities in the wake of the grand jury report, behind the scenes the church fought tooth-and-nail to derail a popular measure that would have created an exemption to the state’s statute of limitations for sexual abuse suits.
The bill, which would have created a two-year window to allow adult survivors of abuse to sue the church, passed the Pennsylvania House. It appeared to have enough support to pass the state senate, but the senate adjourned for the session without voting on the measure after allies of the Church failed to get enough support for an alternate bill that would have allowed survivors to sue individual priests but not the Church.
Now the question becomes: Will the public—both inside and outside of Pennsylvania—stand any longer for the extraordinary dispensation that has been granted for so long to an organization that has engaged in what may prove to be a decades-long criminal conspiracy?