Imagine an organization. It’s well-regarded and has a long, storied history. But it has a dark side.
In addition to its many good works, certain members committed some of the worst offenses imaginable – crimes against children. Even worse, imagine that administrators had concocted a scheme to hush it all up in an effort to protect the organization.
A question inevitably arises: What then is the culpability of the organization?
In any setting but a church, the answer would be shouted from the courthouse steps. Should it be different when it is a church?
It shouldn’t, but in Erie County, it appears it is.
It is a matter of record here – and in Catholic dioceses around the world – that a notable minority of priests sexually abused children and that those cases were kept quiet. In some instances, priests were put on leave or, unthinkably, reassigned to other parishes.
Yet neither Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. nor Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood say they can follow the obvious trail and determine what responsibility, if any, extends into the church’s hierarchy. Both claim lack of jurisdiction, though expert observers disagree.
That leaves only a couple of likely explanations: lack of resources or, in a heavily Catholic region, lack of will.
The former is simply unacceptable, given the circumstances. So is the latter, but it also sells Catholics short. People of faith don’t need to be coddled. Strength is inherent in faith.
In other places, public officials have been willing to stand up for decency and accountability. In Pennsylvania four years ago, the attorney general’s office searched the administrative offices of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Based on documents it found and witness testimony, a grand jury concluded that hundreds of children in the diocese had “fallen victim to child predators wrapped in the authority and integrity of an honorable faith” and that two bishops “placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the well-being of innocent children.” It noted: “Priests were returned to ministry with full knowledge they were child predators,” the report said.
Two years later, in 2016, Pennsylvania empaneled a special grand jury to examine clergy sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight dioceses. The resulting report has been suppressed by a court as it considers efforts by some of the people named to block its release.
Two counties in New York have also stepped up. A grand jury in Westchester County concluded in 2002 that the archdiocese had engaged in a “concerted effort … to mislead the community: defending the abuser while simultaneously attempting to humiliate victims and their families – even in the face of mounting credible evidence against a particular abuser.”
In Suffolk County, another grand jury came to similar conclusions in the same year. In a 181-page report, it concluded that officials of Diocese of Rockville Centre “agreed to engage in conduct that resulted in the prevention, hindrance and delay in the discovery of criminal conduct by priests” and used “deception and intimidation to prevent victims from seeking legal solutions to their problems.”
No charges were filed in either county based on those reports, but residents in each knew more than they would have without the investigations. Residents of this diocese – and, surely, other others in New York – deserve to know as much about what happened.
Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone has demonstrated a heartening willingness to confront these issues, but his efforts can go only so far. This is also a matter for law enforcement.
Crimes were committed. The Erie County District Attorney and the state Attorney General need to investigate.