Churches Challenged To Reform in Face of Black Collar Crimes

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Little has changed since this challenge was issued in Freethought Today in May 1990.

0n the basis of our new study on recent criminal cases of pedophilia in the ministry, Freethought Today is issuing an open challenge to churches to clean house:

We call on all clergy and church officials to make it a policy to voluntarily abide by the spirit of mandatory child abuse reporting laws, to undertake their own studies of these crimes within their denominations or affiliations, to screen and check backgrounds of ministers and any other church staff, deacons or volunteers given access to children or who engage in counseling, and to adopt basic safeguards needed to assure safety and accountability in their churches, schools and daycares.

Currently, sexual abuse of children by religious authorities is being handled by religionists as a crisis of faith rather than as a crime.

Making mortal men sacrosanct has given them a power over others which no other profession endows. This makes the betrayal of trust by these molesters all the more treacherous.

Churches are resisting suggested reforms that would reduce the opportunity for men of the cloth to abuse power. We see pronouncements blaming victims by Catholic bishops across the continent that grow particularly bitter when civil lawsuits are filed seeking damages for negligence or cover-up. Many cases in all denominations have involved congregations supporting accused molesters.

In most of the Salvation Army cases, for example, the denomination has hired defense, sometimes paid for special investigators, bail, and costs of appeals. This is of special concern because the Salvation Army obtains so much public funding, and because of its charitable reputation. People give them money to feed the hungry, not to help molesters of children.

Another concern is that many civil suits are settled secretly. These settlements usually involve sealed records and muzzled victims, which shrouds church crimes and avoids public accountability.

Worst is the culpability of church officials who know that priests or ministers have molested children, yet do nothing about it--even just the minimum of reporting allegations to authorities.

The problem is compounded when the state does not prosecute church hierarchy for failure to report suspected child abuse, or when state laws explicitly exempt clergy from mandatory reporting.

Our study found only three ministers convicted for failure to report suspected child abuse by fellow ministers or church staff--none of these in the Catholic Church.

The Washington State Court ruled on March 22, 1990, in overturning the conviction of Rev. E. Scott Hartley, that ordained clergy do not have to report cases of child abuse they learn about in the course of official duties, but that nonordained religious counselors must. The Court said it was bound by a 1975 amendment to the reporting law that implies an exemption for clergy.

Yet every state requires teachers, social workers and the medical profession to report suspected child abuse. According to research by the Atlanta Journal & Constitution in 1988, only five states explicitly require clergy to report: Mississippi, Oregon, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Nevada. However, some 16 states implicitly require clergy to report suspected child abuse, and one might add that moral duty requires it in every state.

The only conclusion observers can draw is that until Catholic bishops and Protestant equivalents are prosecuted and put behind bars for failure to report, or for collusion or accessory to a crime, the cover-ups and inaction will continue.

The Catholic Church's pitiful response deserves special attention. A short document issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1988 called only for immediate psychological help for the priest and a "pastoral concern" for victims and their families. This amounts to a cover-up, with, at best, accused molesters trotted off to the nearest Catholic treatment center for problem priests with no legal charges or record, public accountability or obligations. Church hierarchy has left policy on molesting priests expressly up to each diocese. Most have made no move to adopt or abide by a policy requiring strict reporting of such cases.

Until this church ceases to coddle and protect abusers of children, it can be said that pedophilia is a way of life in the priesthood.

The corollary problem is unwillingness by the state to prosecute ministers and their accomplices with the full force of the law. Our study found not only church cover-ups, but Catholic judges who reduced sentences of priests whom they praised for their piety or threw out cases, and deferential prosecutors who must "confer with the chancery" before pressing charges.

State/church separation does not mean that churches and their leaders are above the law, or that ministers cannot be charged criminally for what they do behind closed church doors. Churches which do not report sexual abuse of children are acting as "sanctuaries for perverts."

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