Earlier this month, the New York attorney general initiated a criminal inquiry into clergy abuse of children in all the Catholic dioceses in New York state. This came fast on the heels of Pennsylvania's statewide grand jury investigation of Catholic clergy abuse, which was reported out by Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Aug. 14, exposing at least 1,000 cases of child abuse over a 70-year period.
New Jersey, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Missouri have similar criminal investigations underway. This follows previous inquiries in other states.
If you want to go back to ground zero, in Boston in 2002, Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly may have issued the very first statewide report on July 23, 2003, when his 16-month investigation revealed that probably more than 1,000 children had been sexually abused by priests and other church workers in the Archdiocese of Boston since 1940 — which averaged out to about 16 children per year up to 2003. By that time, Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law, who presided over decades-long cover-ups of abuse, had fled to Rome, leaving before he could be subpoenaed.
But no matter how many separate state inquiries are initiated, I predict that the findings will all repeat the vocabulary of “cover-up,” “collusion,” “enabling,” “sacrificing children for the sake of the institution's reputation” — the same script gets replayed over and over. The time is long past for the criminality of the Roman Catholic Church to be treated as just a local or state problem — this is a national problem that is part of the global epidemic of child abuse.
We must insist that this country hold a national, federal inquiry that covers all 50 states. In doing so, the United States will not be leading, but following, many other countries around the globe that have already conducted such national public inquiries — like tiny Ireland, which took the lead in the last decade with three government reports and now has a fourth national ongoing inquiry by a Mothers and Babies Commission of Inquiry into mistreatment of mothers and infants in homes run by Catholic orders.
An Australian research study at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology reported last year on over 26 countries — including Australia, the United Kingdom, European nations, and Canada — that have held official, national public inquiries into institutional abuse. These include two ongoing government inquiries in England (IICSA) and Scotland (SCAI), following the completion of similar inquiries in Wales and Northern Ireland.
One of the most extensive recent inquiries also took place in Australia, where a Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse just issued a final report last December after a five-year inquiry that recorded over 8,000 testimonies from survivors of child abuse in religious and secular institutions.
If President Nelson Mandela of South Africa could initiate a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1994 to investigate decades of institutional injustice against victims of apartheid, can we not appoint a federal commission to investigate at least a century's worth of abuse of children? If Massachusetts and now Pennsylvania started the ball rolling, at least pick up the ball and run with it in a full-scale, national investigation of mistreatment of children in many institutions — not just the Catholic Church, but other religious and secular entities, including schools, universities, youth programs, etc.
I can think of few priorities that outrank the health, welfare and protection of our blessed children. So stop draining off scarce local and state resources which are bravely and conscientiously devoted to addressing institutional crime within local borders. Sexual predators (and their enablers) cross state lines all the time to pursue their perversion. Make this national epidemic a national priority with appropriate federal funding and government clout. Appoint a special prosecutor if necessary.
Nobody gets a pass when our children's lives are at stake. Nobody.
Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard University psychologist who writes frequently about child abuse.