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Op-Ed: Protect Kids, Not Bishops

By Mark Vincent Serrano
January 27, 2003

The top lawyer for the Catholic Church is warning against changes in state laws that will protect children from rape and exploitation.

In yet another reminder that church leaders are more concerned with their power base than their moral base, Mark Chopko, the General Counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, decried the efforts by lawmakers across the country to adopt legal remedies for child sexual assault. In a recent speech at Catholic University, Mr. Chopko said, "There are forces at work in this society that will, unless checked, radically remake the religious institutions serving the public…we cannot allow the state to remake the church."

As legislatures in states throughout America are convening this month, elected officials have a chance to demonstrate the moral leadership that U.S. Bishops have been lacking in addressing the epidemic of child rape that has gripped the Catholic Church and its faithful for the past year.

The rally cry for the separation of church and state by Catholic leaders is misplaced in the face of an ongoing public safety crisis that lingers in the church today. Thousands of sex offenders have evaded criminal prosecution over the years with the help of the bishops. Many of these priests are still in active ministry in the church and in religious orders today, and even more are living in communities throughout the country, their identities as child molesters well hidden and their ability to rape children again unabated.

Mr. Chopko is yet another voice of denial in the church suggesting that the bishops should be trusted to protect children in the church today as they were before 2002. Yet recent polls demonstrate that the majority of the general public and the Catholic laity are not pleased with the efforts of the bishops to address the sexual abuse crisis in the church.

This can come as no surprise to church observers who witnessed pledges by the bishops last year for more compassion and transparency, yet who dismissed calls for penalties for their brethren who hide sex offenders in the church. All the while they have continued to direct their representatives in statehouses across America to fight legislative proposals that restrict sex offenders from evading the law and bishops from protecting them.

In legislative statehouses, the State Catholic Conferences serve as the primary lobbying tool for the bishops in their respective states. This year they are fighting proposals on many fronts from state legislators who just one year ago would never have dreamed of challenging the authority of the bishops. Now these lawmakers want to fix the laws to prevent the wholesale devastation of lives that we have just begun to learn about in the church over the past year.

Legislators must act now to revise the laws so public safety and law enforcement officials have more tools to prosecute child rapists in the church and in society on the whole. Yet we do not need to "remake the church" in order to accomplish this mission, as Mr. Chopko would like to scare regular Catholics into believing is the intent of legislators.

We simply need to revise the law to close loopholes that Cardinal Law and his brother bishops have used to transfer sex offenders over the years, enabling them to violate more children. State action might not be required in the first place if bishops had not demonstrated a decades-long pattern of criminal concealment that led to more victims in parishes nationwide.

Legislation to change child abuse notification laws, including those that modestly break the seal of the confessional, should be passed to deny clergy exemptions as mandated reporters when crimes against children are reported. Such legislation was introduced last week in Kentucky as part of a broader package of remedies.

More importantly, states must revise their criminal and civil statutes of limitations this year while parents continue to fear for the safety of their children and while sex offenders run free throughout the country. Such proposals to modify these statutes were passed into law in some states like Connecticut last year, where victims can sue organizations liable for enabling sex offenders to abuse them as far back as thirty years. The revision that was passed into law in California last year passed the legislature in a unanimous vote; an obvious sign that the bishops will not be trusted to reform their policies in California without incentives from the state.

These modifications are necessary not to remake the church but to provide the church with the incentive to reform its practices fully. Such laws will allow sex offenders to be prosecuted and may provide for greater truth, healing, and justice for the victims of sex offending priests, as well as protection for children today.

Instead of directing their lobbyists to fight substantive change, bishops should join the dialogue with abuse survivors, legislators, as well as prosecutors, to determine the legal course of action that will change the lives of children, without encroaching on the spiritual life of the church. Bishops should be marching shoulder to shoulder with survivors' advocates to demand change in state laws so that the church can be a safe place for children today by putting sex offenders behind bars where they can no longer harm anyone.

Even today though the bishops count on automatic deference from the people and public officials to provide exemptions in the law for the church, hiding behind our constitutional principles of the separation of church and state, and continuing to enable sex offenders to find a safe haven in the priesthood.

This is the year to change this tragic legacy. The church and its lawyers should know by now, it is time to protect kids, not bishops.

Mark Vincent Serrano is a national advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse and a board member of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests