Wednesday, June 4, 2003

How bishops are avoiding indictment

"Should some bishops be indicted? Probably. But I don't think they're going to get one," said Monsignor Kenneth E. Lasch, of the Church of St. Joseph in Mendham, N.J., a leading voice within the clergy for assisting victims. "There's still something about indicting a Roman Catholic bishop in this country that's distasteful and politically not the proper thing to do in many places."

Prosecutors and legal experts said, however, that there are huge legal hurdles to prosecuting a bishop who has not committed sexual abuse himself, but has not prevented abuse by others.

"The first problem is proving criminal intent," said Robert M. Bloom, a professor at Boston College Law School. Even when prosecutors can show "all kinds of inaction" by bishops in the face of sexual misconduct by priests, it is not easy to prove that "they conspired with these bad priests to allow this to continue," he said.

Since the scandal broke, many states have made it a crime not to report child abuse, but such laws cannot be imposed retroactively.In New Hampshire, prosecutors were able to turn to a state law on child endangerment that imposed a broad obligation on churches and other organizations to safeguard children in their care. In California, the child endangerment law is not as far-reaching, but prosecutors say that if they can show a single violation of the law within the current statute of limitations, they can reach back further in time to try to prove a conspiracy by church leaders to protect sexual abusers.

Prosecutors in numerous other jurisdictions have expressed frustration with their state laws and statutes of limitations. Grand juries have indicted a small number of priests, including one in Cleveland, two in St. Louis, six in Phoenix and nine in Los Angeles. But on Long Island and in Westchester, N.Y., grand juries were stymied by time limits on prosecuting sexual abuse cases and issued stinging reports calling for changes in state laws.

In Kentucky, more than 200 lawsuits have been filed against the Archdiocese of Louisville, many alleging not just abuse by priests but also a pattern of concealment by their superiors. Yet Commonwealth's Attorney David Stengel decided there was no point in calling a grand jury to investigate the diocese's leaders, said his spokesman, Jeff Derouen."The problem in Kentucky is that not reporting [sexual abuse] is a misdemeanor, and misdemeanors have a one-year statute of limitations," Derouen said.