(Nov. 22, 2019) An Associated Press story has revealed that sex abuse boards, set up by churches to ostensibly help victims, often help abusive priests and churches first, leaving victims out in the cold.
A Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August 2018 re-awakened the nation to the unspeakable problem of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. The report determined that more than 300 priests had sexually abused more than 1,000 children. The nation sat up and took note. Many states have since acted to relax statutes of limitations laws that had previously time-barred sex abuse claims. Arizona, California, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Montana changed their laws to allow those who had been abused long ago to have their stories heard, to have their day in court. The state of Pennsylvania is close to passing similar legislation.
A similar moment in the Catholic church’s long, sordid history of child sex abuse occurred some 20 year ago. At that time, the church set up review boards to hear sex abuse victims’ stories and to identify predator priests. The boards were charged with listening to the stories of abused survivors, financially compensating credible claimants, and identifying abusive priests in order to help bishops purge them from unsuspecting parishes.
The panels were also supposed to be independent. The AP wrote that “laypeople would be chosen in each diocese to review allegations fairly and kindly.” However, AP found, the panels were rarely independent of the church, and quaint adjectives like “fairly and kindly” were often forgotten by callous board members.
The AP investigation of review boards across the U.S. shows a broad failure to uphold their commitments.
“Instead,” wrote AP, “review boards appointed by bishops and operating in secrecy have routinely undermined sex abuse claims from victims, shielded accused priests and helped the church avoid payouts.”
Dozens of Survivors Rejected
The AP also found dozens of cases in which review boards rejected complaints from survivors whose abuse stories were later validated by civil authorities. Some board members were even clergy members themselves who had been accused of sexual misconduct. In addition, many abuse survivors told the AP they faced hostility and humiliation from boards.
The AP found that when a victim in Florida went before a board, a church defense attorney there grilled him about his abuse until he wept. He was not allowed to bring his own attorney to the meeting. When one Ohio man told a board how a priest had raped him, he said one board member was knitting a pink sweater. As one Iowa woman detailed her abuse to a board, she said one member was asleep. That somnambulant board denied the woman’s claim, an action which was directly contradicted by a later civil court ruling in her favor.
AP Board Study Protocol
The AP reported that it sought information from all the roughly “180 dioceses in the U.S., (reviewed) thousands of pages of church and court records and interviewed more than 75 abuse survivors, board members and others to uncover a tainted process where the church hierarchy holds the reins of power at every stage.”
Conflicts of Interest Rule Church Boards
The AP found that a bishop in each case rules his personally chosen board like a queen on a chessboard. The AP said bishops have appointed church defense attorneys and top aides to their boards. Bishops also choose which cases go to the board, what evidence members see, what criteria is used to decide if an allegation is “substantiated” or “credible.” Sometimes, the AP found that even where boards did find cases credible, bishops still sided with the priest and ignored the findings.
A Florida man who told a review board last April about his sexual abuse by a priest, told AP about the situation: “It’s a fraud. It’s a sham. It’s a cover-up. (There’s) no one on the board [who] cares for the victim. (It’s) all about protecting the church.”