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Pennsylvania Grand Jury Investigation Into Clergy Sex Abuse May Set New Precedent


The Pennsylvania grand jury that investigated widespread clergy sex abuse may have set a new precedent. Until now, most abuse cases have been handled by Catholic authorities themselves. The church has its own legal system, complete with prosecutors, judges and trials. But many abuse victims say they've lost confidence in the church system. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Under Catholic Church law, it is a crime for a priest to molest a child. You can't be sent to prison - only civil law can do that - but canon number 1395 in the code of canon law says a priest who has sexual contact with a minor should be penalized up to and including being removed from the priesthood. And Catholic authorities claim they are now finding those abusive priests.

LISA MADIGAN: Well, the problem is I'm not sure that that's accurate.

GJELTEN: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced her own clergy abuse investigation last month.

MADIGAN: So there has to actually be an independent investigation that will allow for a full and complete accounting. And until that's done, because of the history, there really is a concern that there are still crimes that may be hidden and people who may be hiding them.

GJELTEN: You just can't take their word for it.

MADIGAN: I think that's what it's come to unfortunately.

GJELTEN: Beyond Pennsylvania and Illinois, attorneys general in Missouri, New York and Florida are exploring the possibility of doing their own investigations into clergy abuse. And some advocates for victims have stopped calling for action by the church and are looking instead to civil authorities. Attorney Jeff Anderson spoke on behalf of abuse victims in Minnesota last month.


JEFF ANDERSON: We're calling upon law enforcement in Minnesota to convene a grand jury. Each county attorney has the power to call a grand jury to investigate these crimes.

GJELTEN: Some church critics say the record of abusive priests going unpunished shows that Catholic canon law has proved to be incapable of protecting abuse victims. Some unique features of the church's legal system, to the critics, undermine its usefulness. Canon law, for example, sometimes values so-called pastoral solutions for an accused priest with punishment as a last resort. And Carolyn Warner of Arizona State University points out it's the local bishop who serves as the judge.

CAROLYN WARNER: The bishop will bring the priest in, ask him if he's going to do this again or if he's over it. In some cases, the bishop will send the priest for counseling therapy, typically to a system run by Catholic priests.

GJELTEN: With a pastoral solution, a bishop may not even identify an abusive priest, but in the bishop's view, he's just following church guidelines. Another goal of Catholic canon law is, quote, "to repair harm caused by scandal" - unquote. Warner, who studies Catholic institutions, says, in this case, a scandal is something that undermines someone's religious faith. A bishop who takes this idea seriously, she says, might see it as another reason to keep priestly misconduct secret.

WARNER: You don't want to let parishioners know about these situations because that might cause them to question their faith.

GJELTEN: It's in part because some see the application of canon law getting in the way of priest accountability that the Catholic legal system is under attack. But the system does have its defenders.

NICHOLAS CAFARDI: I don't know if there's a deficiency in the system. I think the deficiency was the failure to use the system.

GJELTEN: Nicholas Cafardi trained as a church canon lawyer and also as a civil lawyer. He's dean emeritus of the Duquesne University Law School. He says a strict application of canon law would have resulted in abusive priests being removed from the priesthood.

CAFARDI: Most of the cases in the Pennsylvania grand jury report happened before 1990. Even in those years, it was a canonical crime for a clergyman to sexually abuse a child. They should have been processed under the canon law, and they weren't.

GJELTEN: They weren't. Whether it was the canon law system itself or its improper application, it was not enough. And victims who want to see their abusers identified and punished are increasingly saying church authority itself does not bring justice. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.