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Di Leo: The Priest Scandal and the Statute of Limitations



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By John F. Di Leo - 

A recent report by a Pennsylvania grand jury has put a scandal – the one about the Catholic priests guilty of sex abuse – back in the news again. Since this particular investigation and report deals with a period that goes back seventy years, there isn’t much actual “news” in it, but it includes shocking numbers and heartbreaking stories, so it has understandably gained national attention.

This Pennsylvania grand jury cast a wide net to capture the entire picture, or at least, as much of the picture of an international organization and an international problem as a state judiciary can reach. Their final report, released this month, alleged some 300 Pennsylvania priests and over a thousand victims, over the 60-some-year period that they studied.  

Before digging into it, there are certain facts that need to be addressed, just for context.  We’re talking about a range of allegations, many of which don’t belong in the same discussion – ranging from nothing more than a kiss (creepy) to actual rape (criminal) to cover-ups by superiors (corrupt).   We’re talking about a state with, consistently, over 3,000,000 Catholics in it, a state that has well over 2500 Catholic priests today, double or triple that a generation or two ago. 300 bad priests and 1000 victims at one moment in time would be a sizable percentage, but over a 60-some-year span, and as a share of many thousands, it is less so… but still sizable, still significant, still heartbreaking and unforgivable.  There is no way to spin it into a minor issue.

There is simply no denying that it is a horrible story, a horrible episode in our history, with many lessons to be learned from it.  The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has hurt everything from church attendance and donations, to the very vocations on which the Church depends for survival.  To see the scandal drive people out of one denomination into another is not so bad; the evangelicals and orthodox have picked up former Catholics as a result, and that may be a positive result.  But to see a scandal in a church drive people out of church entirely – to lose their faith instead of just changing their parish – is heartbreaking (in addition to being the wrong response, since the failures of human beings have no bearing on the truth of the Lord’s Word).

But the Catholic Church has been dealing with it, ever since its discovery, years ago now.  Every diocese has implemented training programs, restrictions, supervision rules… counseling and response procedures… and the Church has been focusing harder on the sources of much of the abuse – such as the network of corrupt seminaries, successfully infiltrated by Soviet operatives nearly a century ago, that produced so many corrupt or corruptible priests over a period of decades. Another source – the sexual liberation movement of the mid-20th century and the more recent, omnipresent pop culture endorsement of “anything but chastity” – is far harder to address.

Similarly, other churches, schools, charities, park districts, and sports teams have followed this lead in establishing their own programs and policies. Even as most of these have not had such public scandals as the Catholic church has, the fact remains that any organization in which some people have authority over another, particularly when those with authority are older and their wards are underage, is at risk of such temptations and events.  Where there is opportunity, there will be some who take advantage of that opportunity – even some who seek the job specifically for that end in mind.   Rooting out such has become a key component of the personnel process, a cumbersome and expensive addition to the already difficult task of finding help in voluntary or low-pay roles.

(I should add a personal disclaimer before I continue; I was raised Catholic, attended numerous Catholic parishes, Catholic grammar school and high school. I have personally known dozens and dozens of priests and brothers very well in my lifetime, and in my entire life, the only touch of corruption I ever encountered was learning that an old family friend suffering a gambling addiction in his old age embezzled a few thousand dollars from his parish to feed his casino addiction. That’s it.  All of the priests and brothers I have known have been honorable servants of their parishes or abbeys. Not to deny that there are others out there who were not; just to stress that the vast majority are indeed the good shepherds one expects a priest to be). – JFD

Millions of words have been written about this issue, both within the Catholic Church and outside it, as both this church and our society at large try to find solutions, both in terms of prevention and in support of past victims. 

But there are two aspects of this case that are forgotten, or even outright misunderstood, and merit consideration.   I refer here to the concepts of Statutes of Limitation and the Age of Consent.

Due to the continued anguish of many – both the abused and their loved ones, and also outsiders in church, in government, and in the public square – over the fact that so many abusers were never made to pay on earth for their crimes, there is a current effort to change the statutes of limitations to allow for later prosecutions of such cases.   Many abusers were never identified until decades after the abuse occurred, long after the time for filing such cases had passed.  Decent, caring people understandably want to help, and they believe that ending the statutes of limitation, or extending them much further, would be justified for that reason.

But there is an old saying in the world of legislative philosophy:  Hard cases make bad law.   In other words, consider the reason for the law first, and consider that perhaps there is a time when the law’s restrictions are sad, leading to a sad result, but they may not in fact merit changing the governing law, when you consider its real purpose, and when you consider what other benefits of the law you would lose from such a change.

Statutes of Limitations are in place for a number of reasons. 

One primary reason is to encourage the prompt prosecution of criminals, while the trail is still warm, so that guilt or innocence can be determined with fresh evidence and trustworthy witnesses.  The longer you wait to bring charges, the fewer witnesses there will be, or the shakier their memories become. Evidence disappears, people forget, move, or even die – not just the witnesses, but the defendants and accusers as well.  Innocent people may get convicted, and guilty people may beat the rap.  Our Constitution guarantees not just justice, but an effort at swift justice, for a reason:   We don’t just want our criminal justice system to get it done; we want to get it right.

But another reason for prompt prosecutions is that few crimes truly occur in a vacuum.  These sex abuse scandals are an excellent example of every other crime wave in America today: the politicians and bureaucrats who shake down people for bribes, the gangs who deal drugs in our streets, the Hollywood moguls revealed by the #MeToo movement to have been serial abusers.

In fact, most criminals don’t commit a single crime for which they are eventually caught and tried.  Most criminals are repeat offenders, committing the same crime for years, until someone stops them. 

How many victims of big city muggings and knifings would never have been victimized if earlier victims had succeeded in putting their attackers behind bars?  How many victims of drug dealers and killers would have been safe from them if such gangsters had been locked up years before they encountered them?  How many actors and actresses would have been safe from the Harvey Weinsteins of their business if earlier actresses had pressed charges?  And how many small businessmen, contractors, proprietors, would have been able to succeed in business, rather than be bankrupted by the shakedowns of powerful aldermen and bureaucrats?

And yes, how many of those 1000 victims listed in Pennsylvania’s grand jury report would have been safe if earlier victims had had the courage to turn in their abusers while the abusers were still active predators?

Upon reflection, it is clear that knowledge of the concept of the statute of limitations is critical to an effective criminal justice system.  Society understands that it is sometimes difficult to talk about such things – whether it’s an attack by a priest, a mugger, a neighbor, an alderman or a director isn’t the issue; it’s often hard to call the police and file such a report, then to submit to testimony and cross-examination.  But it is a critical part of our system.

We understand the fear, the desire to bury the memory, to blame oneself… but we must stress to all true victims of actual crimes that prompt reporting of crimes is a key part of good citizenship in a free society.

Prompt prosecution is imperative, not just for your own vengeance, however well deserved, but also for everyone else who may be in your shoes tomorrow.  We need to raise Americans with this understanding – that only prompt prosecution of criminals can protect your fellow man from them.  As the very old saying goes:  Justice delayed is justice denied.

There is one more shocking trend at the moment – possibly only at the beginning stages due to the self-serving goals of the deviant community, but all too real nevertheless – concerning the age of consent.

Traditionally, there has been an age of consent for sexual activity, largely to define a point at which activity crossing that line could be prosecuted as statutory rape. In a state with an age of consent of 17, a 20-year-old male who talks a 16-year-old female into bed has to fear the embarrassing and highly-punishable sex crime of statutory rape. If the age is 16, or 15, ever fewer such people can be prosecuted for this crime.  A high school senior who talks a high school freshman into bed may get off scot-free, because you can’t call it rape if it was willing, and you can’t call it statutory if no statute was violated.

In this permissive age, such regulations are viewed by the establishment as restrictions on the young people’s freedom, but they are in fact protections, designed to give the young and the gullible better cover against the wiles of the older and cleverer people who would take advantage of their youth and naivety.

In fact, an analysis of the concept of the age of consent gives us guidance for our other subjects as well.

Rape is still illegal, but rape is defined as sexual activity without mutual consent. If the two parties both consent, you generally cannot make a rape charge stick. The age of consent is there because of the theory that a child – however society chooses to define the term – is incapable of giving consent.

The masters of modern pop culture want to define that term downward, to boost children’s self-esteem, but what they accomplish in effect is to reduce the children’s protections under the law.

A person in a position of authority, whether it’s a priest or a teacher, a policeman or soldier, a boss or an alderman, or just an older kid – such as a 19 or 20 year old college kid, making a pass at a youngster – commands a level of respect, and even awe, that can obtain “consent” from the young and naïve that an older and wiser person would have the good sense to deny. 

We’ve all seen the movies – the high school freshman girl being flattered by a senior, or even the college kid, who really just wants an easy notch on his bedpost. She’s willing, but unwise; the age of consent is the only thing that may protect her.

Caught, the slimeball punk will say “but it’s not rape; she wanted to!”… but this law enables the police to say “That doesn’t matter.  If you knew or suspected her age, you’ve committed a crime.”  Fear of such a result causes many such would-be predators to leave the young ones alone, and enables society to prosecute those who it fails to scare off.

What America needs isn’t a weaker “age of consent” standard, but a stronger one, if only it were possible. The same logic applies to so many other concepts.  The unemployed actress facing the possibility of a movie contract being dangled by a fat old producer, the college student who needs good grades from a predatory professor to keep her scholarship, the executive secretary of a corporate CEO in a world in which such administrative jobs are disappearing, the aspiring singer offered the chance to work for a successful record producer.  How often do such girls truly give consent, honestly defined; how often is their “consent” a polite fiction so that rape doesn’t feel quite like rape?

We remember a president who was impeached for such actions; Bill Clinton was proven to have used his power to assault a state employee (Paula Jones) when he was governor, a businesswoman regulated by his office when he was attorney general (Juanita Broaddrick), even a young intern when he was president.  Only the last was consensual, but his past experience thusly using his power gave him the confidence to continue such misbehavior in office after office.  Employees or regulated businessmen often don’t dare report the crime for fear of losing their jobs, contracts, or businesses.  Does that make the assault less of a crime?

So here we are today, with a society that has forgotten why the age of consent exists; a society that thinks first of how best to make a 14-year-old, or a 13-year-old, or a 12-year-old, feel better about himself or herself. 

The deviant community – from NAMBLA, which seeks to enable older men to recruit ever-younger boys into their networks, to immigrant groups who seek the legal right to marry their underage cousins and nieces, to bring them into the country as family, and to advance the jihadist goal of out-populating the West – has made it their goal to break down the age of consent laws.  And they have found, and funded, political advocates for their goals.

As these laws vary from state to state, so too do the methods of attack, but they share one common thread: they sell it as empowering the youth – “to be themselves,” “to express themselves,” “to be the adults they deserve to be.”

The legislative candidates, academics, and 501C(3)s advocating such policy would never let it out that their goal is to enable the corruption and abuse of America’s youth, but there is no other way to read the facts of the case.

We live in dangerous times.  And just when many problems are finally coming to the surface, enabling a fresh eye and an effort to correct them, other corresponding powerful efforts arise to thwart such efforts.

You can’t enable the imam to marry his 14-year-old cousin without making it harder to prosecute the predator priest, coach or teacher who talks his 14-year-old altar boy, team player or student into alone-time in the back room.  You just can’t.  The laws are color-blind.  Ease one path and you ease them all.

We must ask ourselves, as a society: do we want to feign compassion, or do we really want to make a difference, prosecuting the abusers and preventing future victimizing?

As at so many prior points in human history, we have a choice:

Rule by powerful men, or the rule of law?

If you read between the lines, then just like so many other issues, this question, too, is indeed on the ballot this November.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker, trade compliance trainer, writer and actor.  His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.


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  1. So you think it sober and judicious for a writer to assert that if a Priest kisses a young boy, under his charge, it can be excused as “creepy”, but not criminal?
    Are you part of the Harvey Weinstein legal defense team?
    As one who witnessed the lavender mafia at a Chicago suburban Jesuit Prep school, I would beg to differ.

  2. No. I am not saying that a priest kissing a young boy is “just creepy” exactly… I was thinking of one of the big stories to have come from the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report, which was a teenage girl who said that her parish priest would kiss her – on the lips – when he arrived at her family’s house for dinner, and it understandably creeped her out. He didn’t rape her… but this was creepy and uncomfortable. and yes, wrong.
    I didn’t want to get into the details of individual crimes in this piece. The report covered a massive range from creepy to criminal to institutionally corrupt. I’m not whitewashing anything here, “Clint.”

  3. Oh, please, spare me. Most of us have quite had it with Catholic dissemblers and fan-dancers like you.
    The one true thing you wrote was:”There is no way to spin it into a minor issue.”
    You also wrote:
    “We’re talking about a range of allegations, many of which don’t belong in the same discussion – ranging from nothing more than a kiss (creepy) to actual rape (criminal) to cover-ups by superiors (corrupt).”
    OK – I’ll meet you in a court of law any day and I’ll
    let you argue that a CPS teacher or a Catholic school teacher was simply being “creepy” but not criminal by kissing an underaged student under their charge.
    Good luck, counselor Di Leo!

  4. This is a carefully written and thoughtful analysis. Not everyone will agree with every conclusion because abuse of children is such an emotional issue that even a relatively small number of cases over 60 years is still terrible for the victims and their families. It is important to pray for both the victims and for priests so that the charity of God may cure past misdeeds when possible.

  5. Ex- St. Senator Rhoads wrote:
    “This is a carefully written and thoughtful analysis.”
    Perhaps so, when viewed through the prism of medieval Catholic canon law.
    But would he suggest that old unsolved cold case murders and rapes are any less “still terrible for the victims and their families?” And that their resolution should be replaced with prayer circles rather than the force of U.S. police investigation and U.S. criminal and civil law?