Church claims to increase transparency on sexual abuse, but others remain unconvinced
By Lana Henderson, David Kunz, Samantha Rosenthal, and Samantha Waigand
Decades of abuse, cover-ups and denial came to light with Pennsylvania’s grand jury report detailing the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by over 300 priests.
“For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere,” the Pennsylvania grand jury report stated.
Since the report was released in August, Missouri and 14 other states have launched investigations of their own. But in Missouri, the state has no authorized subpoena power over the church’s records, which means the investigation relies entirely on the cooperation of the church.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley launched an independent investigation into the Catholic Church in August following the Pennsylvania investigation. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Diocese of Jefferson City, the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and the Archdiocese of St. Louis all agreed to help in Hawley’s investigation by opening their records.
“I immediately responded with a letter of request, seeking his assistance in providing a good thorough review of our files, which we have already conducted internally,” said Bishop Shawn McKnight of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City.
After McKnight was ordained and installed as bishop in February, he contracted an independent firm of former FBI and law enforcement officials to conduct an internal investigation of his diocese. He provided the Attorney General’s Office the names of 33 credibly accused priests following their investigation. Of those listed, 14 are dead, one was convicted and the rest are inactive in the church.
Vast public knowledge of the abuses of the church increase sentiments of fear and doubt in the church across America. Catholicism has the most drastically declining members of faith in the country, according to the Central Social Survey. The share of U.S. Catholics who reported attending Mass at least weekly fell by nearly half — from 47 percent to 24 percent — between 1974 and 2012.
Cynicism toward the church extends to the motives behind new investigations. Critics of the church’s transparency believe the bishop is providing the minimum amount of information.
“I think the information that is being released is far too little, and it's far too late,” abuse survivor Don Asbee said. “Until we have a situation where the diocese in this state are compelled to provide sworn testimony by the Bishops and the records are subpoenaed, I don't think we're going to get the story.”
Judy Jones, Midwest regional leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused said the release of names is a way to mitigate damages and control what information reaches the public.
“Bishops fight lifting statutes of limitations. They spend lots of money doing this so they don't have to go to court so they don't have to be subpoenaed,” Jones said. “They want their secrets to be kept hidden because if they are found out they might land themselves in jail.”
Although many laypersons in the church are concerned by the clergy’s actions, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB, claims to have taken steps to prevent future abuses.
“We are profoundly saddened each time we hear about the harm caused as a result of abuse at the hands of a clergyman of any rank. We are committed to work in determined ways so that such abuse cannot happen,” the USCCB said in a statement.
The USCCB developed the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People after the Pennsylvania investigation. The charter created Diocesan Review Boards for internal investigations. It also established that the church would act against clergy accused of abuse and prevent them from working with children.
“I think that's going to be the new way that the church continues in the future,” McKnight said. “The solution to this crisis that we have in credibility and leadership means that we have to find new ways for the laity, the people in the pews, to have more of an influence in the governance of the church.”
However, secrecy provisions and canon law mean the bishop has yet to move forward with the charter. The 1983 Code of Canon law outlines certain responsibilities given to bishops when dealing with affairs related to the church. Secrecy provisions are documents signed by bishops between them and the church that detail where and to whom they are allowed to release information. Canon law is the code of the ecclesiastical law declared by a pope’s doctrine.