The Presidential Election Offers an Opportunity for Candidates to Improve their Positions and Policies to Prevent Sexual Abuse
Election season offers us all an opportunity to assess the past position of our candidates and establish better, more modern expectations. When it comes to the critical issue of preventing sexual violence, this election offers a chance to demand that our federal government intervenes to make our communities safer for children and the vulnerable.
In 2018, Attorney General Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania sponsored a watershed Grand Jury investigation that should be a national model. Shapiro's work uncovered that nearly 10% of all priests in the six dioceses he investigated had abused thousands of children for decades and demonstrated that generations of bishops over the course of 70 years enabled and covered up those crimes.
In two years since, lawsuits and public statements from victims and whistleblowers around the country have continued to lay bare the truth we have known for years – this is a nationwide problem that demands a nationwide response. Given these developments, we have established our own more modern expectations for our leaders and specifically one of the candidates for the second highest office in the nation.
Senator Kamala Harris, as the District Attorney of San Francisco, chose to ignore an opportunity in 2004 to continue the work of her predecessor, Terence Hallinan, who was compiling dossiers about abuse in the Archdiocese of San Francisco with the intention of investigating and cracking down on that archdiocese. Despite the work that Hallinan had done, when Harris assumed office she stopped cooperating with victims and chose not to prosecute a single abusive priest.
Later, as Attorney General, Senator Harris was silent about advocating for clergy abuse victims, surely in part because her boss, Jerry Brown, expressed his disdain for windows of justice that involved his church - he was a Jesuit Seminarian.
Not surprisingly, with no crackdown, San Francisco remains one of the last few archdioceses in the nation to refuse to provide a list of abusers. We believe that the San Francisco list would contain hundreds of names of sexual predators who are yet publicly unknown, leaving communities in California unprotected. Had Hallinan's policies been pursued, that list would likely already be published, with crucial information that would safeguard the community and help victims heal.
This is not a simple thought exercise. In the past two years we have seen what public pressure from elected officials can do to expose abusers and protect children. Harris’ successor as Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, with a different boss, Gavin Newsom, has opened a statewide investigation into Catholic Church practices and has ordered all California bishops to preserve sex abuse files. Newsom signed into law a three-year "window of justice" that already has attracted hundreds of lawsuits that name predators and enablers, known and unknown. These are monumentally positive moves for victims of clergy abuse and all citizens; when predators are named, parents can protect their kids. We believe that what Becerra, Newsom, and the California legislature have done should be replicated nationwide.
During this presidential campaign, we hope that both major political parties will commit to a crackdown on clergy sex abuse. Governments and law enforcement have powerful tools if they choose to exercise them.
Even with nearly 100 dioceses and religious orders not yet publishing abuser lists, 6,700 priests are known to have abused tens of thousands of children. These known numbers indicate an abuse rate of about 7% of all priests. If all lists are ever published, we believe the names will exceed 10,000 abusers and an abuse rate of over 10%. Making things more dangerous is that according to the AP, 40% of known abusers are alive and are not monitored. These dangerous men, therefore, represent a continuing threat to our children and our community.
Nearly 50 bishops, the leaders of 1/3 of all dioceses, are themselves accused of abusing children. Given how power in the church is concentrated with bishops, there is no way the Catholic Church can police itself or come clean about its past. We rely on the politicians to make strong laws and rely on law enforcement to vigorously investigate crimes of sexual violence.
We call on both political parties to take action to protect our community and support those who have been grievously harmed by sexual abuse. We also call on them to make stronger laws and vigorously enforce them to keep our community safe. Our politicians can learn from what went wrong in the past in order to make improvements in their policies and actions that will keep children and the vulnerable safer. Each of our candidates for higher office should commit to this change, now.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)