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Why Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Is So Hard to Stop

The latest horrific report came from Pennsylvania, but it won't be the last one, thanks in part to an insane lobby standing in the way.
(Photo by JESSICA RINALDI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that was nothing less than explosive. Although Americans have been reading similar horrific tales since at least 2002, when Spotlight reporters at the Boston Globe reported on priests there molesting kids and the Church systematically covering it up, the details in the new—nearly 900-page—document were particularly gut-wrenching. What's more, the report suggested that the already jaw-dropping estimate of the number of victims was probably a conservative one.


"We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests," the report reads. "Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church's own records. We believe that the real number—of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward—is in the thousands." To get a sense of what this very lengthy report means in the broader context of Catholic Church sex abuse, how rank-and-file adherents might be responding, and what can be done to punish offenders and prevent abuse in the future, I called up Michael Dolce. He's a lawyer who represents survivors of clergy abuse and helped get Florida to repeal its statute of limitations on child sex crimes in 2010. VICE: Like most people, I'm familiar with what happened in Boston, but less so everywhere else. I was hoping we could start off talking about the scope of this scandal so you could get me up to speed on where else there have been explosive reports at this point.
Michael Dolce: We've seen similar reports to the most recent one that's come out of Pennsylvania in Los Angeles, Washington state, Milwaukee, and Minnesota. This is not the first time, but as I see it, the reports are becoming more and more specific and kind of confirming, if you will, the patterns we have seen are very much patterns in terms of the institutional mishandling of child abuse.


Can you elaborate on how the latest grand-jury report fits into the larger picture of what we know about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, though? For instance, have the alleged cover-up tactics been the same nationwide, or have they evolved over time?
I see them as being quite typical of what we've seen across the Catholic Church—and not just there, but in other institutions. But certainly the leadership in the Catholic institutions have been particularly purposeful in efforts to cover up reports of abuse and failing in particular to report abuse to law enforcement. What we also see in this report was the acknowledgement by the grand jury of what we've known for a long time, which is that when we see 1,000 victims, there's knowledge that the numbers are much higher. If you look at underreporting rates, this is probably more like 10,000 victims. That was essentially one of the findings of the grand jury—the magnitude and scope of the problem.

One of the unique aspects of this grand-jury report is the recommendations for change. They emphasize more than I've seen before the importance of failure-to-report laws [for sex abuse]. They said close the loopholes and don't give people a pass on this.

Have narrow statutes of limitations been the primary roadblock against criminal charges where there've been allegations against priests over the years?
No question about it. We know the average time for reporting is 15 years after the fact and in most states, the statute of limitations is set up that crimes had to be prosecuted in four or six years or something like that. We estimated here in Florida before we repealed the statute of limitations for child sex abuse in 2010 that they were barring 70 percent of all criminal prosecutions.


How does one go about removing the statute of limitations in any given state?
When I started the effort in 2004, I would not have believed you if you had said it would take six years. I knew my way around the legislature, I had worked there for years, I had assisted in passing a number of other laws. I knew what I was doing. I had worked for an influential senator—I knew how to get things done. But when I came back as a citizen it still took six years because I couldn't find the political willpower to overcome the strength of the Catholic leadership lobby. And they of course were backed by an insurance industry that didn't want further civil exposure. Then, of course, the criminal defense bar was fighting me tooth and nail.

What reasons do actual lawmakers give for opposing expanding the statute of limitations for civil or criminal action? And is this simply about the Church and other institutions' lobbying power or is it more complicated?
The tactics that were employed in Florida are the same ones I see elsewhere. They try to kill the legislation quietly and behind the scenes, never letting it go to a vote. Most legislators understand that if you publicly fight against legislation that is specifically designed to protect children and work against the tactics of predators and those who give them safe harbor, you're going to pay for that in the next election. So what they did in Florida was keep me off the Senate and the House floors for six years. They tied it up in committee and with amendments and excuses. When it got there, we won unanimously. It was the right thing to do—at least publicly.


But the resistance, when it's spelled out at all, is largely argued on financial grounds?
The main tactic we saw in Florida was they said if the legislation passes, we would see liability insurance for running schools, daycare centers, and recreation leagues become unaffordable. Churches would shutter. Daycare centers would become non-existent.

Well, what have we seen in states where they've been repealed? Is that true?
We repealed the limitations in Florida, effective July 1, 2010. And I can tell you as I sit here today, I have not heard of a single daycare center, a single church, a single rec league, being closed as a result of this. And I would be the first person to lodge a complaint to, OK? What we see is the flip-side benefit, which is that insurance carriers are much more careful about the institutions that they insure, and that they come in and audit, and that the best practices are in place.

You mentioned not seeing any church doors close as a result of exposure to liability, but what about due to lack of membership? Why aren't people leaving the Church despite what is now a decades-long scandal?
I got a note two nights ago from a dear, dear friend of mine, she and her husband are devote Catholics, about their struggle to distinguish the faith from the institution. I simply encouraged them that their faith is their faith and that the people who administer it can do the wrong thing. But I do know people who have been turned off by it.


But when—as in what year—might we have a nationwide accounting? When does this end?
I shudder to think how long it's going to take. There's an underlying problem here, and that's the societal unwillingness to even confront these issues. People don't wanna believe this will really happen. I can tell you about a case I just tried in Gainesville, Florida. My client's pastor* said he didn't believe it was even possible that her father could have behaved this way toward her. He was in disbelief the entire time—including when he testified at trial two years later. And he was willing to look past a lot of very compelling evidence. He said a bizarre theory that somehow my client had been brainwashed by a man who spent ten days around her.

Every time you open a newspaper and see an article about child sexual abuse, you always see quotes from friends, neighbors, family members saying, "I'm in shock." At what point in time are we going to say, 'We need to stop acting this way, and this is the reality of the danger we face?'

*Correction 08/16/2018: Because of a transcription error, an earlier version of this story misattributed the conduct in question to the client's pastor rather than the father. We regret the error.

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