Equal Justice Under Law?

In light of the recently published grand jury report on abuse committed by priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses, other attorneys general across the nation are considering launching similar investigations in their states. Some states, including Missouri and Illinois, have taken the initial steps in reaching out to the bishops in their states, seeking their cooperation in these investigations. So far, bishops have communicated their willingness to cooperate. The Archdiocese of St. Louis, led by Archbishop Robert Carlson, actually requested an investigation of their priests by the state. “We have nothing to hide,” Archbishop Carlson said.

This does raise some questions, however. Everyone knows of the history of horrific abuse committed by Catholic priests against thousands of children over the decades since the Second World War, which is how far back the Pennsylvania investigation went. Yet, it’s no secret that the physical and sexual abuse of minors is not a crime unique to Catholic priests. Yet, so far, each attorney general that has expressed interest in or taken steps to investigate the Catholic Church has expressed interest in or taken steps to investigate only the Catholic Church.

Pennsylvania, for instance, in the year after the grand jury investigation was launched, ranked second among states in the number of complaints of abuse lodged against employees of the state’s public schools. The grand jury investigation identified just over 300 priests who were accused of sexual abuse over the course of the seven decades the report covered. In the five years between 2009 and 2014, at least 233 teachers lost their licenses because of criminal convictions. Most of those convictions were because of sexual misconduct, child pornography or assault. If those five years are representative of the seventy years since WWII, that comes out to over 3200 teachers, ten times the numbers of priests identified in the grand jury report. If you’re thinking, “Well, yes, but the abuse these teachers committed was actually reported, not covered up like the priests,” you should know that studies suggest that millions of students are abused by teachers, and much of it goes unreported to civil authorities and unreported by the media. According to a U. S. Education Department study, an estimated 1 in 10 students will be sexually abused by a teacher during his or her school years, or about 29,000 every year. Carol Shakeshaft,  former chair of the Educational Leadership Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, who conducted the study, said, “in only 1% of the cases did Superintendents follow up to ensure that molesting teachers did not continue teaching elsewhere.” But, that study was conducted in 2004, fourteen years ago. As far as I can find, the Education Department has not conducted a study on the problem since.

Some states, including California, have passed laws suspending the statute of limitations on child abuse, creating a temporary “window” allowing those abused years or even decades ago to sue for redress. Other states have considered bills in their legislatures. However, most of these laws, and all the ones that have managed to pass, have specifically exempted child abuse committed by public employees, which includes the public schools. When Colorado tried to pass such a law, the people of the state demanded that the bill be amended to include public employees. The teacher’s unions went ballistic and the bill was killed. In 2013, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act in Congress, which would require schools that receive federal funds to run criminal background checks on potential employees and bar from employment anyone convicted of homicide, kidnapping, or rape. Sounds pretty reasonable. The bill was introduced in the Senate in 2014 by Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, but has not moved since.

This is not a case of “What-about-them?” When you’re talking about 29,000 kids being sexually harassed, raped, or sexually abused every year, that is not a problem that can be dismissed by accusations that anyone is simply trying to deflect attention away from the Church’s problem. When abuse by priests is so intensely investigated and the much greater epidemic of abuse in public schools is virtually ignored, one can’t help but wonder what’s going on. It’s reasonable to ask if state’s are so intent on investigating abuse in the Church as a means of deflecting abuse taking place in their own public institutions.

Whether that’s fair or not may be a moot point, because there simply is no movement or expressed interest in any state carrying on the kind of investigation into their public institutions as one has and others are planning to do in the Church.

The concern here is that states are abandoning the principle of “equal justice under law,” words inscribed on the edifice of the U. S. Supreme Court building and enunciated in the 1891 Supreme Court decision Caldwell v. Texas. In that decision, Chief Justice Melville Fuller wrote, regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, that, “the powers of the States in dealing with crime within their borders are not limited, but no State can deprive particular persons or classes of persons of equal and impartial justice under the law.” The Church may suffer the consequences of a two-tiered justice system, one for the Church and one for everybody else. Victims of abuse may suffer under such a two-tiered system, as well, one for victims of abuse by priests and one for victims of abuse by anyone else. These are not unwarranted concerns. I’ve already mentioned the laws suspending the statute of limitations on abuse. In 2006, Anne Burke, Justice on the Illinois state Supreme Court, stated that priests should be removed from ministry on the basis of a single accusation, even if it cannot be substantiated. “We understand that it is a violation of the priest’s due process — your innocent until proven guilty,” Burke said, “but we’re talking about the most vulnerable people in our society and those are children.” Burke made no suggestion that others ought to be fired or removed from office on the basis of an unsubstantiated accusation, or that ministers of other religions, much less civil officials, ought to have their due process rights abrogated. In 2009, the Connecticut legislature considered and then dropped a bill that would have given the state the authority to reorganize the financial and pastoral structure of the Catholic Church in that state. Connecticut has not considered legislation to reorganize the financial and pastoral structure of other churches, synagogues, mosques or temples. In 2014, Washington, DC passed two laws, one that requires Catholic schools to allow that their facilities be used by groups that have agendas contrary to the mission of the Catholic Church and another that prevents the Church from refusing to hire someone on the basis of their “reproductive health decision making,” so the Church could not refuse to hire someone who applied, perhaps, as director of pro-life activities at a parish on the grounds that that person had procured an abortion. In 2017, a court in Louisiana found that the state could not require a Catholic priest to divulge what he had heard in the confessional, but impaneled a jury to decide if a particular encounter between a priest and a young girl constituted a sacramental confession, essentially claiming for the state the authority and expertise to ascertain whether or not a sacrament took place. No attempts have been made to presume such authority or expertise over the religious sacraments and rituals of other faith traditions.

Other industries and institutions, including the entertainment industry, the Boy Scouts, U. S. Swimming, the military, and other professions, including doctors, therapists, and Protestant ministers, have long been known to have significant problems with the sexual and physical abuse of children. Still, like public school employees, these are all given a pass by state attorneys general.

If we as a society are going to be serious about stopping the abuse of children, then we have to be serious about stopping the abuse of all children. We cannot pick and choose which abusers we will condemn, which we will ignore, and which we will tolerate. If we do so, than it’s reasonable to ask why we are condemning and acting on the abuse committed by some, and ignoring or tolerating the abuse committed by others, and if the decision to do so is motivated by bigotry, hatred, or self-serving political, social, or personal interests.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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