The Washington Post has published a story this morning on the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Why exactly they have chosen to do so at this time is not clear. There are no new allegations, no legal updates to report, no recent protests or accusations against the Archdiocese of Washington’s handling of this matter.
The Article, entitled After child abuse accusations, Catholic priests often simply vanish, seems to have as its purpose and focus the question of whether the Catholic Church is doing enough to “track” and control the behavior of former priests once they have been “defrocked” (i.e. laicized or removed from ministry). The question seems somewhat misplaced however since such functions of control, probation and registering sex offenders are the role of the State, not the Church. Never mind though, this article is going to be about the Church. Never mind that the Church has no legal standing or power to accomplish such tracking, control and legal disclosure. Yet it would seem according tot he article that she is still negligent. Exactly how the Church is to accomplish this task of tracking and controlling is not made clear by the reporters or others interviewed. At any rate this lack of monitoring seems to be the premise of the article. The article begins with this somewhat rhetorical observation:
[S]omething glaring is missing in this country: the accused priests. Although the vast majority were removed from ministry long ago – barred from celebrating Mass in public, administering the sacraments, wearing their clerical collars or presenting themselves as priests – church officials say they have no way to monitor where the men are now…..The Washington Post was able to identify 31 priests accused in the Washington area and locate nine who are still alive…..
The implication of course is that we are supposed to be monitoring. Again, how and on what legal basis or standing we are to do this is not stated.
The Article is further deficient in that it doesn’t discuss the breadth of what the Church has done to protect kids nor does show how much has been developed, including criminal background checks of all priests and lay staff who have any contact with youth. No mention is made of the reporting and accountability to third parties that all abuse prevention training is up to date and that all requirements are met yearly in terms of legally recognized abuse prevention programs. Neither does the Post article make clear that historical data and names of all accused priests have been made public. All the men mentioned in the article have been named publicly before by the Church. Further, it is the policy of the Archdiocese to immediately inform the local police of any charges of abuse, past or present. None of this is mentioned and the impression is allowed by the article that the Archdiocese is somewhat cavalier about men who are barred from ministry and child safety, which is not true.
As a priest, I am grieved and angry that any brother priest of mine harmed children, sexually abused them, or scandalized them in any way. Nothing could be further from the purpose of the priesthood and the Church than the exploitation of the innocent and vulnerable. There is simply no place in the priesthood for those who have done such things. I believe the Archdiocese of Washington has been very serious about finding those men who offended and, upon knowledge of any past abuse coming to light, has acted swiftly to remove them and report them to law enforcement. As a priest I am additionally grieved at how the horrible violation of trust by these abusers has affected the ability of the vast majority of priests who never offended to preach the Gospel and build trust with their people. I am no apologist for any abuser priest. Neither do I think that the Church has handled this matter well in the past. However, this Post Article says nothing about how seriously this Archdiocese has been about this problem for a long time now. This leaving out of the “rest of the story” is a serious deficiency of the article and a disservice to the Church, and to many people I love and respect who are very diligent in protecting the young. Susan Timony is the post just prior to this (http://blog.adw.org/2010/12/wounded-hearts/details) some of the significant measures we take to prevent abuse and also the pastoral care we extend to victims and their families.
But the ultimate deficiency in the Post article is the poor marksmanship of the authors who completely miss the target of what should concern us at this point. The data in this article goes a long way to show the deficiencies in our criminal justice system. If we are really serious about protecting young people from sexual abusers it is not obvious by looking at the lapses in incarceration, probation and community protection by the State.
I would like to look at an example from the article to illustrate this. The quote from the article is in bold italics black. My commentary is normal text red
The Case of Robert Petrella:
Robert J. Petrella has been accused by at least 25 men of molesting them when they were boys, church officials said. He has been convicted twice of abuse charges in Prince George’s County – in 1997 and 2002. Yet his name does not appear on any sex-offender registry He was prosecuted under the Maryland laws in effect at the time his crimes were committed, long before such registries existed, said Prince George’s Assistant State’s Attorney Renee Battle-Brooks: (This is bureaucratic gobbledygook. Robert Petrella has been in and out of jail twice since 1997. His absence from sex-offender registries is not a negligence on the part of the Church, this is negligence on the part of the State. Where is the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Surely the Post will devote full attention to this terrible oversight in the law. The Post and many voices legitimately demanded immediate reform in the Church for our oversights and bad policies of the past. How about this dreadfully bad policy by the State of Maryland? Robert Petrella should be listed prominently in every sex-offender registry. He is a very serious offender. At least 25 men have accused him. This is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of the state).
The Washington Archdiocese, which removed Petrella from the ministry in1989 after two decades and seven parishes, defrocked him in 2002. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she isn’t sure where Petrella is, and his attorney, William Brennan, declined to comment. (Hmm…so it looks like the Post isn’t going to decry the State of Maryland and interview people who demand reform. Oh, I see, it’s back to the Church which is supposed to know his whereabouts and be doing…. what? Has the Post not missed the true target here? It is the State of Maryland and other States as well that need reform. The Church does not have the capacity to track whereabouts since she cannot demand reportage from US Citizens. We cannot force Petrella to where a ankle device or demand he check in every day. That is not in our power. The State however does have that power and I would recommend that the Post, if it is serious about protection, use a little journalistic pressure to agitate for change as they and others rightfully did of the Church in the past).
The person who has tracked the former priest most closely in recent years is [David] Fortwengler, who was an11-year-old altar boy at St. Columba when Petrella molested him in 1968. “I got that sick feeling in my stomach again,” Fortwengler said of learning that Petrella’s probation was coming to an end. Petrella, who did not respond to phone calls and letters, had gone unmonitored for long stretches before….. Petrella….didn’t face criminal charges until 1997. After being convicted of battery, he served one week in jail before persuading a Prince George’s judge to release him so he could care for his ill mother. (Pay attention folks. After being convicted of child molestation Petrella spent only one week in jail, one week. Now this is a serious miscarriage of justice by the State. Again, where is/was the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Why did this go unreported at the time? Again, this is the State, not the Church that is going lite on offenders)
His release required him to be in a home detention program in Pennsylvania under supervised probation for three years. Yet it came out in court documents years later that probation authorities there were never supervising him…. (More incompetence and dereliction by the State. It seems well past time for the Post and others to demand a full investigation of such matters. A dangerous sexual predator was allowed to go free and unmonitored for years. Did he live near a school, a playground? How many others are going free and unmonitored? Why is the Post making this an article about the Catholic Church. Here again it seems that they are missing the mark, which is the States of Maryland and Pennsylvania, which have both the legal power and duty to protect citizens and have failed to do so. The Church does not have the ability to track people or the power to engage in probative practices. It really must be the State that does this).
In 2002, after Fortwengler and two more victims came forward with allegations, Petrella was arrested again and pleaded guilty to three counts of unnatural or perverted sex practices. This time, he served nine months (nine months? Is that all?) and was released on the probation that ended three years ago…. (out already?) Haunted by the idea of Petrella going unnoticed, Fortwengler located him in 2008 in the North Arlington, N.J., home where the former priest had grown up. He was living there with his mother (Is this the same mother who was so sick that he had to be released to care for her in 1997?), neighbors said. He sometimes took walks carrying a Bible and wore a clerical collar when he appeared for a neighborhood condolence call, they said. “In order to protect your children, the whereabouts of dangerous predators like Petrella must be disclosed,” read the flier Fortwengler took door to door. Since then, neighbors have kept a close eye on Petrella, Good for Mr. Fortwengler. However he shouldn’t have had to do this. Further, with all the weird protections Petrella seems to have, Mr. Fortwengler may well have opened himself to a lawsuit had Petrella chosen to do so. Just as the Church has no power or jurisdiction to engage in such practices, neither does Mr. Fortwengler. But again he should not have had to do this. Robert Petrella belongs on every list of registered sex offenders. Had this been the case, neighbors would have known.
Well, OK, you get the point. It is the State which should be the real target of our reporters here. But, strangely, they are silent in terms of pursuit of this angle of the Story. It remains the Catholic Church that is their target. Rather than call State Officials, our reporters called the Bishop’s Conference and the Archdiocese of Washington. They received the following and rather obvious replies:
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference, said there is only so much that can be done to keep track of accused priests once they are no longer connected with the Church. “There is a lot of concern, but there are limits to what we can do legally,” she said. “We have no authority over them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
“Our authority over them ends when they’re laicized and no longer priests,” [Susan] Gibbs [Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Washington] said. “Even if they’re not laicized, they have the choice of walking away. They are adults. We’re not a police force. We don’t run prisons. We don’t have mechanisms in a legal sense for controlling them.” The legal system is much better positioned to offer ongoing scrutiny, she said. “That’s why it’s best if someone reports abuse immediately and that it’s brought to authorities, because then there’s a legal path to follow for investigating, proving and monitoring.”
Exactly, There are legal limits, and even legal liabilities involved when private citizens or organizations overstep their authority. Lawsuits, charges of harassment, defamation and so forth can result.
Three other ADW cases – Two former priests of the Archdiocese (Edward Hartel and Russell Dillard) are also mentioned in the article. Neither were convicted in court of the charges against them. They remain suspended from priestly ministry however for various reasons. In these cases the Church has been stricter than the State. The norms of the Church allow us to be very particular about who we allow to function in priestly ministry. However, to legally track and attempt to restrict the movement of former priests like these (who are free US Citizens and convicted of no crime in any US court) would surely involve legal liabilities. One final Archdiocesan Priest mentioned in the article is James Finan and he has freely submitted to supervision by Church authorities. Having met his legal obligations to the State he has lived in Church retirement homes for priests. He has not ministered as a priest or had any contact with parishes or children. But note, he is supervised as a free decision of his own. The Church could not insist legally on this, since he has rights as a US Citizen.
In the end, the Post has missed the proper target. Currently there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system that need investigation. The safety of children and minors is at stake when the State either through incompetence or legal complexities fails to give sentences that are commensurate with the crime, grants early release and/or allows sexual offenders to go unmonitored and unreported on sex offender registries.
The Church has rightfully been rebuked for our failings of the past. I know that this rebuke has had the salutary effect of reform in the way we handle these matters today. I think that on-going scrutiny is both necessary and helpful for the Church. However this Post article makes clear that significant reform is also necessary in the US criminal justice system. It is my hope that the Post will follow through with what it has uncovered and that other media and concerned parties will insist on reform in the State as well. Sadly, and for obvious reasons the Church herself cannot champion this call. I suspect that I will get more than a few comments here on the blog from those who will be quite angry with me and assert that I am trying to evade responsibility for our past failures. I am not, and hope I have stated that plainly. But the fact is, this problem is bigger than the Catholic Church. If we are really going to be serious about protecting children it’s time to widen the net of accountability.
Here is a PDF of the Statement Issued by the Archdiocese of Washington Yesterday in response to the Post Article: Our Commitment to Healing and Protection