Why Internal Investigations into Sexual Abuse Don’t Work

The next time you read a story in the news about Catholic Church officials engaging in an internal investigation — often called an “Apostolic Visit” or a “Canonical Trial”— I want you to think about the following:

Here’s the scenario: a medieval king learns that one of his assistants is rife with crime and corruption. The knights in charge (many of whom he trained and educated and who have taken a lifetime vow of allegiance) are refusing to follow laws, committing crimes against the citizens, embezzling money, and allowing other criminals to run free without punishment. The king’s subjects begin to complain.

In response, the king offers the traditional solution. He assigns a duke—who is a life-long friend to many of the accused knights—to “visit” the assistant and figure out what is going on. When the duke asks what the outcome should be, the king replies, “We have hundreds of years of dealing with issues such as this. Shut the problems down, quiet the subjects, and ensure this issue goes away.”

In the 12th century, this was an expected response. A medieval king does not have to answer to any other outside authority. The morally inept knights are eternally indebted to the king and his seemingly invincible power. The people? Well, they question nothing.

Now imagine that this scenario isn’t about a king. Instead, pretend that the king is a 21st-century Pope. Instead of knights, you have bishops in cities like Kansas City and Detroit. Instead of subjects, you have Catholics and other regular citizens. Instead of petty corruption, the subjects are victims of child sexual abuse. Many of the victims are not even Catholic.

Does the scenario seem so “reasonable” and “expected” now? Especially in countries where local civil authorities know that laws are being broken, but lack access to evidence because church officials keep it hidden?

  1. This behavior by the Catholic Church is not reasonable or morally sound. And it must stop. It is no longer (and honestly, never was) acceptable that we allow the church’s twelfth-century standards to thrive in secrecy under a false veneer of 21st-century justice.

The Pope and the bishops expect us to accept their transgressions, secrecy, cover-up, and corruption because 2000 years of people before us have allowed them to act with impunity to the law.

How Do We Make Change Happen?

It’s easy. And it’s in our power to take action.

  • Stop Donating: If you are Catholic, stop donating to your local parish and diocese. If you are not Catholic, talk to your local lawmakers about the influence of Catholic organizations such as Catholic Charities and demand that your cities and nonprofits withdraw support until your local diocese engages in transparent, third-party investigations of abuse and cover-up. While almost everyone who donates to the church is doing so with good intentions, the truth is that the donations are going to an organization that repeatedly, chooses to cover-up abuse and self-preservation over the safety of children. There are credible allegations of abuse in virtually every diocese in the United States. No bishop is immune.
  • Work Toward Statute of Limitations Reform: The #1 reason that children in the United States are safer from abuse in the Catholic Church is because brave survivors have come forward and changed the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. When that happens, survivors are empowered to hold abusers or wrongdoers accountable. Light is the best way to expose the truth, and the civil and criminal justice systems require the Catholic Church to come out of hiding and take responsibility for hurting children.
  • Support and Encourage Law Enforcement: Law enforcement must change their “professional courtesy” approach with church officials and must embark on robust independent investigations—including using “no-knock” warrants when crimes are committed in their jurisdiction. Almost every state in the US has active child sexual abuse civil cases ongoing against the Catholic Church. In each of those instances, the more we encourage independent law enforcement agencies to investigate, the safer generations of children will be in the future.