Wake Up, Prosecutors! Perspective from a Sex Abuse Victims’ Attorney

The Penn State sex abuse scandal has prompted a seismic shift in how the world views the safety of children. It’s similar to life before 9/11 and post-9/11.  The world has changed in a few days.

Several Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering new legislation related to mandatory reporting, with other states likely to follow. New victims are coming forward. The case also prompted an admission from Citadel, which acknowledged failing to fully investigate or report a case of suspected sex abuse in 2007.

Civil attorneys, who have been working these cases on behalf of victims for years, welcome the revelations and potential reforms. Civil litigation is a powerful tool for victims, but there’s no substitute for the power of criminal prosecution to hold responsible parties accountable.

When civil attorneys are asked to do the work of prosecutors, it’s costly.  And often, those who protect perpetrators are left in power to police themselves.

It took me years of fighting, all the way to the Washington state supreme court, to force the Boy Scouts of America to hand over their secret files detailing longtime institutional knowledge of pedophiles within their ranks.

In sex-abuse cases involving the Catholic Church, we routinely see local authorities decline to use their prosecutorial powers to investigate.

Case in point: the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. In a deal struck this week to avoid criminal prosecution, Bishop Robert W. Finn agreed to meet monthly with a local prosecutor to detail every suspected episode of abuse in his diocese for the next five years. Last month, Finn was indicted by a grand jury for failing to report a priest accused of taking pornographic pictures of girls.

I’ve seen this behavior for years. It is the same preferential treatment prosecutors have been giving to the Catholic Church for decades. It is not the prosecutor’s job to supervise or oversee the Catholic bishop.

Who else is the prosecutor going to have weekly meetings with? The Baptists? The Mormons? The Boy Scouts of America? This is a misuse of prosecutorial power and smacks of preferential treatment for religion. Instead, the prosecutor should convene a grand jury, put people under oath, subpoena documents and conduct a thorough investigation. How would the prosecutor know the extent of the problem in the Kansas City Diocese if he has never unearthed all the facts?  How would he know if the bishop is telling him the truth in their sessions or if he lied? If Finn lies, it would not be perjury, as he will not be making sworn statements, presumably.

Meanwhile, here on the West Coast, the Seattle Archdiocese has declined to release the names of some 69 credibly accused clergy, opting instead to wait for the Vatican to decide their fate, before making the allegations public. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg believes the statute of limitations has passed and has declined to investigate. Instead, he’s opted to sit on the archbishop’s advisory board, trading his prosecutorial powers for tea and cake with a church official.

Why this backward thinking? If a suspected pedophile ring were uncovered in any other organization, there would be no end to the outcry, as we’ve seen at Penn State

The problem with self-policing is that Catholic bishops and others at powerful institutions have an inherent conflict of interest. Their highest priority is to protect their assets and reputation.

It’s been nearly 10 years since the sex-abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese burst onto the scene. Thousands of court settlements later, we’re still entrusting Catholic bishops and others to keep tabs on their own.

Penn State is a wake-up call. It is past time that criminal prosecutors and grand juries in the United States start using their power to investigate, like they’re doing at Penn State, in Philadelphia, and in parts of Europe. Criminal sanctions should be brought against officials that shield predators, using existing laws that are in place. The stakes are too high. The safety of children is too important.

Seattle attorney Tim Kosnoff has represented more than 500 victims of childhood sex abuse. 

To find out more, visit Kosnoff.com or call:

Toll free: 855-529-4274
Tim Kosnoff, direct: 425-837-9690
Kosnoff Fasy, Seattle office: 206-257-3590

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