It's ironic that Pope Francis will soon speak to the United States Congress, because the U.S. is one of the western democracies that was most hard-hit by the priest sexual abuse crisis and also lacked any federal response to it whatsoever. No federal legislation or regulations or even resolutions were proposed or adopted. There were no congressional hearings. There was no Justice Department investigation. Nothing.
Abroad, a number of national and regional governments have conducted investigations and issued reports about this continuing crisis, including Ireland, Australia, Canada and Belgium.
Non-profits, like the Child Rights International Network and Amnesty International, have done investigations. International bodies, like the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee Against Torture, have done investigations,
But since the first U.S. pedophile priest made national headlines 30 years ago (Father Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, La.), the federal government has done virtually nothing. There have been two statewide investigations launched by attorneys general in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. There have been 8-10 local jurisdictions that have done grand jury probes. But there's been no action by federal officials at all.
Individual members of Congress have commented on the crisis. In 2005, then-Sen. Rick Santorum, for instance, cited Boston's "liberalism" as a cause of the crisis: "When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected," he said. "While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."
But as a body, no federal U.S. institution has ever taken action about — or even investigated — this horrific, on-going scandal.
So why should they now?
Because predator priests are still on the job. (With minimal effort, we've found a dozen.)
Because virtually no bishop who has concealed child sex crimes has been punished.
Only four U.S. bishops have resigned over the past few decades because they've endangered kids. They retain their salaries, titles, honor and power. None have been defrocked, demoted, disciplined or even publicly denounced by top church officials. When wrongdoing is ignored, wrongdoing will likely be repeated.
And because these two factors alone mean that children are still not safe inside the church.
What could Congress do?
For starters, they could hold hearings and force bishops to answer tough questions under oath about how much they know and how little they're doing about child molesting clerics. That alone might give abuse survivors and their families hope. And it might help deter employers in churches and elsewhere who are hiding predators now or may be tempted to do so in the future.
Federal officials and agencies might tie crime-related funding to state reform of child safety laws. For instance, Justice Department monies might be denied to states that give child sex abuse victims little time to expose predators in court. (We tie highway funds to driving safety measures, like reasonable speed limits. We can do the same with child safety measures.)
Years ago, under George W. Bush, the DOJ established a special unit to pursue charges against hard-core Southern racists who beat and intimidated African-American voters in the 1950s and 1960s. Why not a special task force now targeting predator priests who have hurt kids in one state only to be sent elsewhere, even abroad, to do so again?
The only reason a few predator priests have been charged, convicted and imprisoned is that abuse victims and secular authorities have been courageous, creative and persistent. We in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests are convinced that if the federal government shows even a scintilla of the bravery that thousands of victims have shown, and a bit of the resourcefulness some local law enforcement staff have shown, real progress could be made in making the Catholic church a more healthy and safe institution — no matter what Pope Francis does or does not do about this continuing crisis.
David Clohessy of St. Louis is the executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He can be reached at email@example.com. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.