A victory for children occurred last week in Johnstown PA. The state’s attorney general pressed criminal charges against three former Catholic church officials — not for molesting children themselves, but for failing to stop a serial child predator whom they supervised.
The three former officials are charged with child endangerment and criminal conspiracy for enabling an already-accused cleric, Brother Stephen Baker, TOR, “to have contact with children and the public as part of his ministry.” [See the grand jury presentment.] The three consecutively led from 1986 to 2009 a small group of priests and religious brothers, the Third Order Regular Franciscans, Immaculate Conception province, based in Hollidaysburg PA.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the charges by PA Attorney General Kathleen Kane “one of the broadest-ever drives to hold [the] Roman Catholic church accountable for clergy abuses of minors.”
The province knew of alleged child sexual abuse by Baker as early as 1988. A church-paid psychologist who evaluated Baker in 1991 urged that he not have one-on-one contact with children. Baker’s superior at the time, Minister Provincial Anthony J. (Giles) Schinelli, Jr., TOR, appears not to have taken the recommendation to heart. The following year, Rev. Schinelli assigned Baker to teach at Bishop McCourt High School in Johnstown. The results were catastrophic.
From April 1992 to January 2010, Baker allegedly abused more than 100 children in the area of Johnstown, including 88 students from Bishop McCourt, where he taught religion and acted as an unofficial sports trainer.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the cleric lacked “any professional qualifications, and under the guise of offering massages or other treatment, Baker handled boys’ bare genitals with his hands and digitally penetrated their anuses, among other offenses.”
Rev. Schinelli and his successors never reported Baker to law enforcement. Baker killed himself in January 2013, shortly after his crimes were first made public.
The filing of charges against Schinelli and his successors by Attorney General Kane was as unusual as it was bold.
In the 13 years since the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team published the secret files of Cardinal Law, hundreds of bishops and other senior Catholic officials have been named in court actions, news reports, and grand jury investigations as enablers of child sexual abuse.
Astonishingly, though, fewer than ten Catholic church officials and dioceses have been criminally charged for their roles in managing the cover-up.
But today, ever so slowly, this accountability gap is closing. In the last few years, we’ve seen more determined public prosecutors like Kane. They are the vanguard of a societal shift: an increasing willingness to insist that religious institutions obey the same child protection laws that apply to everyone else.
- Last June, Ramsey County MN Attorney John Choi announced criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on six gross misdemeanor counts for its “role in failing to protect children and contribution to the unspeakable harm” done to three children who were sexually molested by Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer in 2010.
- Last April, Bishop Robert W. Finn resigned as leader of the Kansas City-St. Joseph MO diocese, a belated measure of ‘bishop accountability’ by Pope Francis. Two-and-a-half years earlier, Finn had been convicted for violating the state’s mandated reporter statute. He is the first (and still the only) U.S. bishop to be convicted for not reporting a pedophile priest.
- And last week, Philadelphia district attorney R. Seth Williams signaled his intent to fight the latest setback in the Commonwealth’s long and winding case against Msgr. William J. Lynn, Cardinal Bevilacqua’s Vicar for Clergy 1992-2004. In 2011, Williams indicted Lynn for child endangerment and criminal conspiracy, becoming the first prosecutor in the U.S. to charge a senior Catholic official for enabling abuse. Lynn was convicted of child endangerment in 2012, but the case is hardly resolved. Last week, Williams appealed to the state’s Supreme Court to reverse a December ruling by the Superior Court overturning Lynn’s conviction. It’s the second time the Superior Court has tossed out Lynn’s conviction, and the second time that Williams has appealed their decision.
The French Spotlight: “They thought that it was enough to relocate him …”
Early signs of a shift toward prosecuting institutional enablers of child abuse are happening outside the U.S. too, including an extraordinary example unfolding now in France. The daily newspaper Le Figaro iscalling it the French Spotlight.
Early this month, the public prosecutor of Lyon launched an investigation of possible criminal wrongdoing by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the country’s most prominent Catholic cleric. In his capacity as archbishop of Lyon, Barbarin allegedly kept two known abusers in ministry, including a serial abuser named Fr. Bernard Preynat.
A longtime leader of a local Catholic Boy Scouts troop, Preynat is believed by a survivors’ group to have sexually assaulted 60 boys between 1986 and 1991. Barbarin didn’t remove Preynat from ministry until May 2015, although his crimes long had been an open secret. The priest had confessed to church superiors in 1991, and even sent letters to the families of children he had molested, admitting to his crimes.
Last month, the priest’s lawyer, Frédéric Doyez, bluntly blamed the cardinal and his predecessors. “If justice has not been rendered until now, it is not Father Preynat who prevented it. From the moment he was uncovered, he confessed. He is a man who has been living with the offenses that he committed for over 25 years. The odd thing is that he was granted a great deal of trust, as if nothing had happened. They thought that it was enough to relocate him, for things to fall into oblivion.”
A child protection initiative unlike any we’ve seen in the United States
However, the world’s pacesetter in terms of holding religious and other institutions accountable for child protection is Australia. Since January 2013, its Royal Commission has been waging an extraordinary inquiry into “institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse.” It is investigating most of the country’s major religious and child-related secular institutions, including the Catholic church.
The Royal Commission has muscle and resolve unlike any government-led child protection initiative we’ve seen in the United States. It has compelled production of secret documents and published thousands of pages on its website, along with transcripts of testimony. It has forced the nation’s most powerful institutional leaders to testify, and many of the hearings are live-streamed.
With still more than a year of hearings to go, the Commission already has had enormous impact. It has made 961 reports to police and other authorities, many of which have resulted in arrests and charges.
Earlier this month, in a four-day live-streamed public hearing, the Commission grilled one of Pope Francis’s top aides, Cardinal George Pell, former bishop of Melbourne and Sydney.
The Commission members questioned Pell from Sydney via video-link, while he sat in a hotel conference room outside of Vatican City. In the room with him were more than a dozen survivors of the priests he allegedly protected. After Pell had said he would not be returning to Australia to testify, citing bad health, the Commission granted the survivors permission to attend the hearing in Rome. A crowd-funding campaign paid for many of their flights.
Pell was questioned in careful detail about his knowledge of a priest sex ring at a Catholic school in the city of Ballarat, where he began his priesthood. He was also asked why as auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, he had ignored repeated complaints about a gun-packing abuser named Father Peter Searson, who terrorized children at a primary school in the poor migrant town of Doveton.
Whether the Royal Commission will recommend criminal charges against Pell remains to be seen.
Pope Francis’s tribunal for bishops is “going nowhere fast”
While Pope Francis has said repeatedly that bishops must be held accountable, it is becomingly increasingly clear that he has neither the political capacity nor the personal conviction to do so.
The Pope raised the hopes of survivors and Catholics everywhere last June when he announced a new Vatican tribunal to judge bishops who fail to protect children.
But according to a devastating article on March 9 by Nicole Winfield, the Associated Press’s respected Vatican reporter, the tribunal has not gotten off the ground. Nine months after it was announced, there has been no follow-up, Vatican sources told Winfield. Indeed, it seems unlikely ever to be implemented.
“It’s a victim of a premature roll-out, unresolved legal and administrative questions, and resistance both inside and outside of the Holy See,” Winfield reported.
This news, along with the recent revelations about Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Barbarin, and the former religious order officials in Johnstown, is bleak confirmation of what we already know. When it comes to child protection, the Catholic church cannot police itself.
That is why it’s crucial that this shift continue — that more civil authorities recognize their duty to hold Catholic officials accountable for reporting allegations and removing abusers. We need more actions like Attorney General Kane’s, and the U.S. needs a broad, powerful, neutral national inquiry similar to the Royal Commission.