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Most priests accused of sexually abusing children were never sent to prison. Here’s why.
The Catholic Church has been under scrutiny from survivors, victims’ advocates and, in some cases, law enforcement, since early 2002, when the sex abuse crisis that involved church administration covering for thousands of priests first became public knowledge.
In the last two decades, there’s been major church reform, including the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which established guidelines for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Meanwhile, dioceses across the country have released lists of credibly accused priests, many of whom are deceased.
Most of these men have never faced criminal prosecution, often because of statute of limitation laws that advocates across the country are trying to change. And some claim they have been wrongly accused.
How many Catholic priests have been accused of sexual abuse?
There’s some debate about the total number of Catholic priests, brothers and school officials who have been accused of sexual abuse. As of Nov. 11, Bishop Accountability, a website that tracks accusations, has named 6,433 priests, brothers and Catholic school officials accused of abuse. Additionally, 154 archdioceses and dioceses have released the names of 4,771 credibly accused clerics, according to Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota-based law firm that specializes in representing sex abuse survivors.
The church has drawn scrutiny from survivors’ groups for sometimes leaving known abusers off its credibly accused lists and for naming the same clergy members multiple times. Some archdiocese and dioceses have declined to release lists. Most religious orders have not released lists, though that is slowly changing.
Why don’t priests who abused go to jail?
Statute of limitation laws are a crucial piece of the priest sex abuse scandal. Statute of limitation laws limit how long someone can be legally prosecuted after a crime has been committed. These laws vary state to state, and are different for criminal and civil cases. Some crimes, like murder, have no statute of limitation.
In Connecticut, for example, the criminal statute of limitation for “any felony or misdemeanor offense involving sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or sexual assault of a minor, including risk of injury involving intimate contact with a victim under age 16” was eliminated, according to CHILD USA, a Philadelphia.-based non-profit working to end child abuse. In Arizona, victims up to age 30 can file civil claims. In New Jersey, the civil statute of limitations was recently extended “to age 55 or seven years from discovery, whichever is later, for claims against individuals and public and private institutions,” according to CHILD USA.
How do statute of limitation laws apply to accused priests?
Most child abuse victims don’t come forward until they’re 52, long after the statute of limitations has expired, which leaves survivors with no course of criminal or civil action, according to data from CHILD USA. Most accused priests were named — either by dioceses or survivors — after the statute of limitation in their respective state had expired. That means the priest can often move on with their lives, taking new jobs and building new community relationships.
What is Megan’s Law and how do sex offender registries work?
Named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old who was raped and murdered in 1994 in New Jersey, Megan’s Law is a federal statute requiring law enforcement to share certain information with the public about registered sex offenders. In every state, residents can log onto their local sex offender registry and search for offenders in their neighborhood.
Many states and cities have passed their own laws and ordinances that restrict where registered sex offenders can live, typically barring them from being within 500-2,000 feet of places where children regularly congregate, like schools, playgrounds and day care centers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Since most of the accused priests were never charged criminally or convicted, most do not appear on any sex offender registries.
Ryan Tarkowski, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania State Police, points out that Megan’s Law doesn’t apply to people who have admitted to abuse — like many of the priests named in the historic Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August 2018 — but cannot be charged because the statute of limitations has expired. In all, the investigation into Pennsylvania’s churches revealed 301 priests who abused more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.
How do dioceses decide who goes on a credibly accused list?
There’s no agreed-upon universal definition of “credibly accused.” It’s at the discretion of the bishops and archbishops, which means two diocese in the same state can have different criteria for who goes on a list — and that’s a problem, according to victims’ advocates.
“This lack of uniformity leads to more pain and anguish for survivors who don’t understand why their perpetrator didn’t make the list,” said Becky Ianni, the Washington, D.C., and Virginia leader for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “In fact in some cases, if there is only one allegation, the name is left off.”
The lack of a uniform process, handed down from either the Vatican or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, can lead to a severe underestimation of the overall abuse problem, Ianni said.
“Most dioceses don’t list how many victims each perpetrator had, or when or if the allegations were reported to the authorities … and even then, it would still be self-reporting, leading to numbers we can’t trust,” she said.
This is why SNAP, CHILD USA and other victims’ advocates have pushed for independent investigations, like the one launched by Pennsylvania’s attorney general last year. Since then, 21 other state attorneys general have launched investigations into the Catholic Church.