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When I was a new convert to Catholicism I used to visit an elderly priest for tea and cake. A fellow convert who shared my love of the Latin liturgy, Father plied me with traditionalist literature, including the uncompromising journal Christian Order. The editorial from the June-July 2006 issue notes the following: 

Archbishop McCarrick … has now been accused of “inviting” certain seminarians to sleep in the same bed with him. In December 2005, the courageous whistleblower Father James Haley … told Matt Abbott of about then-Bishop Theodore McCarrick’s predatory “techniques.” 

That 2005 article by Abbott (and a 2006 follow-up) included on-the-record quotes from priests who knew of McCarrick’s activities. So, yes, everybody knew. Even nobodies in England barely out of high school with no access to the American Catholic establishment.

As an English Catholic who briefly lived in the United States, I have often wondered about the disparity in rates of abuse by clergy in the U.S. and clergy in England. The John Jay Report found that 4 percent of American clergy ordained since 1950 had been accused of abuse. Further allegations increase that figure, with many sources citing 5.6 percent. By contrast, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, says that in “the past 40 years, less than half of 1 percent of Catholic priests in England and Wales (0.4 percent) have faced allegations of child abuse.” One in eighteen priests in the U.S. has been accused of child abuse, compared to one in 250 in England and Wales.

A note of caution is in order. The source of the 0.4-percent figure is difficult to ascertain, though it is accepted even by critics of the Church. A government inquiry in England is currently examining abuse in the Church. Reports from this inquiry mainly provide further detail into already known cases (such as the scandals involving English Benedictines), but the inquiry has warned that more cases are likely to emerge. 

Similar questions surround the U.S. statistics. There are allegations that some American bishops grossly understated the numbers of abuse cases in their dioceses, raising questions about the John Jay Report, which was based on self-reporting by bishops. It is possible (perhaps probable) that further scrutiny will increase the total number of priests accused of abuse on both sides of the Atlantic. But there seems no reason to doubt the disparity reflected by the current data: The U.S. figure is a 1,300-percent increase on the English figure. To put it mildly, a significant difference.

Might there be useful lessons in the English experience for would-be American reformers? I wish to offer three suggestions. 

First, anti-abuse protocols need to apply to everyone. The U.S. bishops exempted themselves from the strictures of the Dallas Charter. The English version of the Dallas Charter gives no such exemption. Though the English bishops’ conference has no jurisdiction over individual bishops, every bishop in England and Wales agreed to subject himself to the same procedures applicable to lower clergy.

Second, statutes of limitations for serious crimes have never existed under English law. Despite the smaller crop of offenders, many clerics have been imprisoned in England even for decades-old sex crimes. By way of contrast, out of 301 priests named in the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report, only two have ever faced criminal charges.

It is sometimes impossible to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute or defend against allegations of decades-old crimes. But many Americans, responding to statistics like those above, want at least to extend statutes of limitations. Efforts to open this debate have been opposed by bishops who spend millions lobbying against reforms. 

Third, Catholics would do well to realize that the First Amendment—a uniquely American constitutional device—can be their enemy as well as their friend. Bishops have argued that the First Amendment protects the assignments given to pedophile priests as religious matters that cannot be scrutinized by the courts. Concerned laity must demand that, whatever the First Amendment does or does not say, negligent prelates are held accountable by the Church. 

The case of Fr. David Soderlund, detailed in pages 372-75 of the recent grand jury report, illustrates the problem with both statutes of limitations and the First Amendment. In 1980, Soderlund admitted that he had abused three boys, and a meeting was held at the chancery of the Diocese of Allentown, during which “photo albums were examined depicting nude photographs of a young boy engaged in sex acts with Soderlund.” In 1996, Soderlund sued the Church, claiming he was “addicted” to adolescent boys and his rights had been violated when he was disciplined by the Church (discipline that was inadequate and long overdue). 

Two things are noteworthy here. First, Soderlund was free to sue the Church, admitting to sex crimes for which photographic evidence existed, without fear of prosecution—because, presumably, the statute of limitations had expired. Second, the court dismissed Soderlund’s suit, not because it lacked merit, but because inquiring into the truth “would plunge the court into the very heart of church policy, administration and governance.” The judge said that bishops must be free to discipline pastors (or not) “without the interference of the state.” So, though the court did not back Fr. Soderlund’s lawsuit, it also refused to support the Church in dismissing a priest who said he was addicted to sex with young boys, because the judge thought the First Amendment prevented him from doing so. It is difficult to imagine a similar case occurring in a country with neither a First Amendment nor a statute of limitations. 

Sexual abuse in the Church is a global problem that ultimately can be tackled only by decisive action from Rome (action that looks increasingly unlikely during the current pontificate). Though abuse exists in every part of the globe, it is not equally severe everywhere. American Catholics who are serious about concrete reform might begin by looking at laws (ecclesiastical and civil) in parts of the world that are already ahead of them on this issue.

Aaron Taylor is a research student in theology at Oxford University.

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