Searching for Adequate Accountability: Supervisory Priests and the Church’s Child Sex Abuse Crisis

by Benjamin D. Wasserman

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Abstract

In 2002, the Boston Globe published a report exposing child sex abuse by priests and a cover-up by supervisory priests. Supervisory priests—church officials who supervise lower-ranking priests—concealed reports of sexual abuse by lower-ranking priests and created substantial risks of sexual abuse to children. Prosecutors tried to hold supervisory priests accountable by turning to statutes that either did not capture the moral culpability of priests, like statutes prohibiting obstruction of justice or contributing to the delinquency of a minor; or that did not legally encompass their misconduct, like child-endangerment statutes. Child endangerment captures the moral culpability of supervisory priests’ misconduct, but child-endangerment statutes based on the Model Penal Code (MPC) do not legally cover supervisory priests or their acts. Though supervisory priests chose to suppress reports of child sex abuse, prosecutors cannot constitutionally shoehorn misconduct into statutes—like child endangerment—that were never before interpreted to apply to individuals like supervisory priests. Instead of breaching the supervisory priests’ constitutionally guaranteed notice that their conduct constituted child endangerment, prosecutors should encourage state legislatures to: 1) extend statutes of limitations for crimes against minors and include clergy as mandatory reporters; 2) amend child-endangerment statutes to include supervisory priests and those similarly situated; and 3) criminalize the reckless creation of a substantial risk of child sex abuse, and the reckless failure to alleviate that risk when there is a duty to do so. Absent legislative action, prosecutors should use statutes that represent a lesser degree of moral culpability, such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor or mandatory-reporter statutes. Enacting statutes that both legally encompass and adequately reflect the blameworthiness of supervisory priests will hopefully deter similar misconduct and protect children from sex abuse in institutional settings.

Searching for Adequate Accountability: Supervisory Priests and the Church’s Child Sex Abuse Crisis

by Benjamin D. Wasserman

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

In 2002, the Boston Globe published a report exposing child sex abuse by priests and a cover-up by supervisory priests. Supervisory priests—church officials who supervise lower-ranking priests—concealed reports of sexual abuse by lower-ranking priests and created substantial risks of sexual abuse to children. Prosecutors tried to hold supervisory priests accountable by turning to statutes that either did not capture the moral culpability of priests, like statutes prohibiting obstruction of justice or contributing to the delinquency of a minor; or that did not legally encompass their misconduct, like child-endangerment statutes. Child endangerment captures the moral culpability of supervisory priests’ misconduct, but child-endangerment statutes based on the Model Penal Code (MPC) do not legally cover supervisory priests or their acts. Though supervisory priests chose to suppress reports of child sex abuse, prosecutors cannot constitutionally shoehorn misconduct into statutes—like child endangerment—that were never before interpreted to apply to individuals like supervisory priests. Instead of breaching the supervisory priests’ constitutionally guaranteed notice that their conduct constituted child endangerment, prosecutors should encourage state legislatures to: 1) extend statutes of limitations for crimes against minors and include clergy as mandatory reporters; 2) amend child-endangerment statutes to include supervisory priests and those similarly situated; and 3) criminalize the reckless creation of a substantial risk of child sex abuse, and the reckless failure to alleviate that risk when there is a duty to do so. Absent legislative action, prosecutors should use statutes that represent a lesser degree of moral culpability, such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor or mandatory-reporter statutes. Enacting statutes that both legally encompass and adequately reflect the blameworthiness of supervisory priests will hopefully deter similar misconduct and protect children from sex abuse in institutional settings.