Why aren't Cardinals & Bishops in jail?

With the release of the movie, Spotlight, and the renewed attention to the priestly child molesters, I began to think of the question I had years ago when the pivotal role of the hierarchy in the cover-up became apparent. That is, why aren’t these guys in jail or at least charged with a crime?

You can be certain that if you or I were, say, the regional boss of an insurance company and moved an agent to another city that you knew was cheating clients out of money only to repeat the pattern when they did it again, that we would soon see the inside of a courtroom when the facts of the case became clear. Is this example analogous?

Couldn’t they be charged with aiding and abetting in furtherance of a felony, organized criminal conspiracy (RICO?), hiding evidence, obstruction of justice etc.? Is it because they’re big wheels in the Catholic Church or am I just plain missing something here?

Since this discussion is apt to become heated, let’s move this to Great Debates.

General Questions Moderator

Statute of limitations would be one reason; in most cases, they expired long before the underlying crimes came to light.

Secondly, you’d have to prove some level of intent: that the cardinals and bishops actually intended the wayward priests to continue victimizing other kids. When the priest say, “Oh no, I won’t do that anymore, I’m cured now,” intent becomes very difficult to show.

Thirdly, most states don’t have a law that requires reporting felonies, and church officials are not typically included in the list of mandatory reporters for child abuse. Absent a duty to report, or a duty to maintain evidence, etc., what’s the crime? Generally speaking, hiding evidence means hiding evidence from a court, law enforcement, etc., that is actively looking for the evidence, not just burying unfavorable information in a file drawer.

Bernard Law (former Archbishop of Boston) went to the Vatican, and a number of commentators have suggested he did so to avoid a possible prosecution in Massachusetts. However, it appears his actions were legal at the time they were taken (Massachusetts’ mandatory reporter law did not apply to priests until 2002).

The statute of limitations had expired in many cases with regard to the molestors themselves.

Temporal authorities in Philadelphia seem to have been the most active in terms of prosecution (though perhaps Philly priests were just especially molest-y).

Robert Finn, bishop of Kansas City was convicted of failure to report suspected child abuse. Given that he had removed the abusive priest from contact with children and ordered the priest to undergo psychiatric treatment, failure to report was about as serious a charge as could be proven.

In Missouri, failure to report is a misdemeanor. I’m not even sure it carried a jail sentence at the time Finn was convicted.


In the example, presumably the regional boss and the company both benefit from the criminal acts of the salesman. It’s likely that a fact-finder will permissibly draw an inference that they regional boss wanted the crimes to continue.

No. Typically, aiding and abetting in the criminal context requires proof that the principal – the person who commits the act – is materially aided by the accused, who also intends for the crime to occur.

Here, there has never been evidence that the bishops involved wanted the crimes to continue. Their actions were taken to shield the Church from exposure and a naive belief that prayer and counseling were effective in curbing molesters.

No. At least one attempt to use criminal RICO process failed, because the bishops’ behavior did not fall within the predicate offenses necessary for criminal RICO prosecutions.

As a general rule, hiding evidence is not a crime. It becomes criminal under certain conditions and in general, those conditions did not exist. Obstruction of justice charges typically cannot be laid unless there was an active criminal investigation in place which the charged behavior then frustrated.

I’d say you’re missing a specific understanding of the relevant law. You see bad behavior and think, “That’s gotta be criminal!” But it really wasn’t. Laws that mandated reporting of suspected child abuse were (in general) a reaction to the abuse scandals and not in place during the abuse and coverups themselves.

Shameful and despicable is not always illegal.

Weren’t some priests convicted long after statute of limitations expired or was this specially done in their case? As far as intent is concerned, they intended to protect the church and their position in it. They are accessories at the least to a felony when they knowingly, repeatedly moved priests after accusations from other priests, parents and others. I think the no duty to report would only apply in a few peripheral cases but by and large when these priests were moved from place to place the officials knew very well why.

Still if you put aside the statute of limitations how is the insurance company situation different than the church situation?

Accessory to a felony has a very specific meaning in criminal law. It does not apply here.

There is a vast difference between civil and criminal law.

Are you interested in the specific details?

The insurance company and a civil lawsuit against the Church has very different rules than a criminal prosecution.

Why aren’t higher ups and co workers in cases of police criminality very rarely if ever charged for their roles in obfuscation and hindrance? Simple. The powerful play by a different set of rules.

There been nothing about nuns sexually abusing deaf children for years the whole damn church should be in jail for covering this up for years !

If they were not powerful, can you identify a specific criminal law that you believe was violated ? In other words, what charge would have been used to convict them if they were not powerful?

For the sheer power (and alleged police complicity) to cover up scandals, there’s always the NFL.

There have been a series of reports and scandals of players’ abuse of spouses, covered up and whitewashed by NFL higher-ups and the police who, upon investigating a complaint, are as likely to just ask the player for his autograph as they are to actually investigate.

Article I just noticed recently (like yesterday), although it’s from last October. Google nfl abuse cover ups to find many more.

For battered NFL wives, a message from the cops and the league: Keep quiet, Simone Sebastian and Ines Bebea, Washington Post, October 17, 2014.

No. Once the statute of limitation is expired, it is not possible to obtain a conviction. It’s over. No matter how nasty the crime, once the statute has run the offender gets off scot-free. Now, different jurisdictions have different time limits, and different crimes may have different time limits; rape and other sex crimes often have longer windows of prosecution than most other crimes, so it is entirely possible that some prosecutions have been commenced long after the crime but still before time ran out. (In some states, there is no longer a statute of limitations for certain crimes such as rape, but that’s not retroactive. If the statute of limitations for a particular crime has run out, a new law can’t reinstate it.)

Protecting the church, or protecting their position in the church, isn’t a crime, even when done for an ulterior motive. The crime is sexual abuse; you’d need to prove they wanted and intended sexual abuse to happen in order to convict them as accessories to the crime itself. Alternatively, you can try to prove that they moved bad priests around solely or primarily to avoid prosecution (that is, there is an active criminal case and the church slipped the guy out of the jurisdiction so law enforcement couldn’t find him, or something on that order). Moving people around, even after accusations, does not by itself violate any law; neither does moving people around just to avoid angry parents.

In the vast majority of cases, there would have been no duty to report. There’s no general obligation to report a crime; you have a duty to report only when there is a specific statute imposing that duty. Even when the bishop knows the priests were moved from place to place because of accusations of sexual abuse, that is not a crime in the absence of a statute specifically requiring the bishop to report the accusations, and such statutes are mostly very recent.

Others in this thread have pointed out some differences; one not yet mentioned is that insurance companies often have fiduciary obligations towards their clients. The insurance company manager might be prosecuted for breaching a specific statutory obligation of fiduciary responsibility. However, there’s no general obligation of responsibility to protect children from every threat.

You are free to argue that there SHOULD be such a law, or a law imposing specific obligations and responsibilities on bishops. However, in the meantime, you don’t get to prosecute people for things you think should be illegal that actually aren’t yet.

What about criminal fraud? It would appear that false statements were made for the purpose of depriving individuals of their legal rights, with the intent of securing their own job security/advancement.

E.g. “I contacted Father Birmingham. … He assured me there is absolutely no factual basis to your concern regarding your son and him. From my knowledge of Father Birmingham and my relationship with him, I feel he would tell me the truth and I believe he is speaking the truth in this matter.” - Cardinal Law

As others have pointed out, this definitely isn’t the case. However, what you may be thinking about is the extension of “windows”, i.e. periods of time in which civil (but not criminal) charges can be filed related to child sexual abuse cases. Several states have at times passed legislation which extends the length of time that childhood sex abuse victims have to file suit, both against individuals who abused them and against employers of the abusers who failed to protect children.

One particularly telling example came from California in 2014. One law, SB-926, extended the window for prosecutions of child abusers. It sailed through the legislature and Gov. Brown signed it into law. Another law, SB-924, sailed through the legislature, but then the governor vetoed it. SB-924 would have extended the window for lawsuits against employers who failed to protect children from abusers. Some employers, that is. It was specifically written to allow for more lawsuits against private employers, but not against government employers. Some suspected that the reason the legislature didn’t want to open up the window for lawsuits against the government was things like this:

The Los Angeles Unified School District had received complaints of inappropriate behavior by a Miramonte Elementary School teacher nearly three decades before he was arrested for lewd acts against children, according to court documents.

The documents show that district officials knew about allegations against teacher Mark Berndt in May 1983 — about a decade earlier than had been previously disclosed to the public. Berndt, 63, pleaded no contest last year to lewd conduct and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Berndt taught at Miramonte from 1979 to 2011, when investigators began to look into his conduct based on photos turned into police. He was later accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he called a “tasting game.”

According to the documents, which were filed as part of a civil lawsuit on behalf of Berndt’s victims, the teacher had been accused of dropping his pants during a 1983 school trip to a museum and park.

Whatever the motivation, Gov. Brown vetoed the bill, so both the Catholic Church and the L.A. school district are safe from lawsuits related to sheltering pedophiles 30 years ago.

Okay, prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Cardinal Law knew for certain that Father Birmingham was lying, or really didn’t believe him, and that therefore the cardinal’s statement is objectively false. Now prove that Cardinal Law gained some financial advantage from making the statement (which is an element of the crime in many jurisdictions–do you know the specific elements in Massachusetts?). What’s the pay scale for cardinals, and what specific dollar amount did the cardinal gain (or deprive the family of)? Was it the cardinal’s intent to protect himself, or to protect the Church, and if the latter, does protecting a third party fit the definition of personal gain?

I thought there was some obligation if you knew of a rapist employee especially a child rapist to say something. After researching, I suppose, there wasn’t until recently. But it still speaks to the common nature of many organizations regardless of their “Mission Statement.” And why entrusting power to institutions should be done grudgingly.

I have no additional details to give about the example I threw in at the last minute, and don’t particularly want to derail the thread.

Do you have any thoughts about the question I asked?

You mean this question?:

My first thought is, are the elements of the offence of “criminal fraud” as you have set them out in your question? The way your question is framed suggests that you think that someone who has (1) made false statements (2) for the purpose of depriving individuals of their legal rights (3) with the intent of securing their own job security/advancement has committed an offence called “criminal fraud”. But is that so?

So you now understand that it was not some shadowy exercise of power, but the simple fact that when the accusations came to light there was no general obligation to report child sexual abuse enshrined in law?

Of course, your complaint is still intact when we look down a layer: the priests evaded prosecution and their victims kept silent for years because of a misuse of power, to be sure, and that was the vicarious power of the Church, misused and perverted for that purpose.

So you’re not wrong in a more general sense. But when specifically considering the bishops’ role, you can’t say it was their powerful roe that saved them: it was the lack of any criminal law their actions violated.