Why the Summer of 2012 Will Go Down in History as the Breakthrough Summer for Child-Sex-Abuse Victims
If you have even glanced at a headline, television screen, or the Internet this summer, you cannot have missed the multitude of stories about child sex abuse and the justice system. The fight against such abuse has taken a laudable turn, for the benefit of victims. And all of these developments have occurred in one state: Pennsylvania. By dint of geography, it has been impossible to avoid comparisons between the institutional cover-ups of abuse at Pennsylvania State University, and in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. To put it mildly, neither institution emerges smelling like a rose.
There is so much that is happening, on so many fronts, it is as though a tsunami of justice has been released. We have been drowning in stories, data, coverage, and new revelations. Indeed, there is so much breaking news about the child-sex-abuse scandals that some reporters have been driven to specialize in either one institutional cover-up or the other.
The trial of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Monsignor Lynn ended in a verdict of child endangerment against him, and a sentence of 3-6 years. The trial of former defensive Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky resulted in guilty verdicts against him on 45 out of 48 charges, with sentencing still to be scheduled; and former FBI Director Louis Freeh recently released his scathing report on how child sex abuse by Sandusky was covered up by Penn State from 1998 to the present. The Freeh Report, in turn, formed the foundation for the NCAA to issue history-making sanctions against the Penn State football program.
And it is not over. Trials await against the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s lay teacher Bernard Shero and Fr. Charles Englehardt, as well as against Penn State’s former Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley. Meanwhile, grand juries are likely busy in both central Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. There is reasonable certainty that former Penn State President Graham Spanier will face criminal charges, and that Sandusky will face more charges. And it is possible that past officials of the Philadelphia Archdiocese may face additional charges as well.
In the midst of this whirlwind of details, it is worthwhile to take a moment to ask how we are doing. There are two separate paths of investigation and punishment: private and public, and I will consider each in turn.
Private Sanctions: The Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Internal Investigation and the NCAA
Private justice is often incomplete. Private parties lack the subpoena powers of the prosecutors, and are not responsible to the people in the way that prosecutors are. Self-interest has a way of turning private investigations into self-serving public relations projects, rather than paths to authentic justice.
This is definitely true with respect to the private investigations by the Philadelphia Archdiocese. As I discussed in another column for Justia’s Verdict, the investigation of the Philadelphia Archdiocese by Gina Maisto Smith has fallen far short of transparency, which is critical to full justice. Smith has been charged with determining not guilt or innocence, but rather “suitability,” yet another weasel-word in the lexicon of religious organizations that are substituting private investigation for the civil justice system. Many in Philadelphia are still shaking their heads over the return to ministry of Msgr. Close, who was credibly accused by two different men. It is inexplicable. And that means it is not justice.
Louis Freeh, a former Director of the FBI, investigated Penn State and brought to the table extraordinary credentials. The problem with his Report, though, was that it did not extend beyond the dates of abuse that were already part of the public record. Sandusky had access to children for over two decades before the Freeh Report came down, so although the Penn State Report is stronger and more credible than anything the bishops have done, it was nevertheless truncated, as it did not cover all the dates when Sandusky, now a convicted serial abuser, could have struck, and likely did.
Even so, the Freeh Report castigated and blamed Penn State higher-ups in terms that no internal report of the Roman Catholic Church ever has rendered against a bishop. And its conclusions, when combined with the evidence at the Sandusky trial, and the Sandusky grand jury report, gave the NCAA fodder to issue the most extreme sanctions against a football program ever. At least with Penn State, there is a separate, private institution like the NCAA that can credibly render punishment, because it is not solely self-dealing. And punish it did: $60 million; no bowl or championship games for 4 years; and a reduction in scholarships. Most innovative was the NCAA’s decision to turn back the clock and deprive Joe Paterno of having his wins since 1998 in the record books. That means he is no longer the winningest cost in college football history. As Jordan Walsh has pointed out, the retroactive removal of Paterno’s record was a powerful punishment.
The Penn State internal system has been better than the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s, but it still has not probed the full scope of the history of the cover up or reached far enough. The legal system has done a better job of investigating, punishing, and responding to the problem.
State Legislatures, Taking Heed of What Happened at Penn State and the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Are Now Expanding Mandatory Reporting Laws
At the same time, the simultaneous scandals in Pennsylvania have led some state legislatures to enact laws that are intended to prevent what happened in Pennsylvania from happening there. Penn State and the Roman Catholic Church can fix their own systems, and purportedly have, but they are not capable of changing other private institutions. That is where the state legislatures come in.
Since the Penn State scandal broke into the headlines, a number of states are considering adding college and university personnel and coaches to their mandatory reporting laws. Thus far, these states include the District of Columbia, Delaware, California, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. One can understand why colleges and universities were not originally thought to need a mandatory reporting statute, but, in fact, they increasingly need such motivation. Not only do we now know, thanks to Jerry Sandusky, that campus sports facilities can be turned into host sites for victims year-round, but we also know that colleges and universities today have an increasing number of summer sports camps, where oversight is often less than adequate, while hundreds of kids stay in the dorms and spend days at a time on campus. Plus, a significant number of professors and university research facilities study children.
A few states have already passed such legislation, on a very short time frame. Those states include Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Ironically, Pennsylvania itself has been slow to pass such legislation. Although bills are introduced in Pennsylvania, they are routinely referred to a committee where they are “buried,” never to be brought for a full floor vote. Such is the case with PA HB 1990, which would add “school staff member, school faculty, coach to the list of persons required to report suspected child abuse.” It was referred to the House Judiciary committee on November 15, 2011—a mere six days after Joe Paterno’s firing—and has not been moved since. A key reason for the delay is that Pennsylvania forced the drive to reform the laws into the hands of a task force, and such a procedural move carries with it inevitable delays.
Public Sanctions: Laudably, Prosecutors and Courts Are Now Demanding Justice Even From Once-Hallowed Institutions That in the Past Had Largely Been Left Alone
In the Philadelphia Archdiocese context, the prospect of a criminal trial did more for the public than any private initiative has. After two Grand Jury investigations and lengthy reports, and with the Lynn trial pending, suddenly new, smoking gun evidence came to light. The Archdiocese, with its Monsignor facing trial, finally disclosed the existence of a list of pedophile priests that had been prepared by Lynn and was known of by several in the higher reaches of the Archdiocese.
Perhaps the greatest changes of all, when it comes to child sex abuse, can be seen in the judicial system. At one time, prosecutors and even judges gave esteemed institutions a wide berth, while the culture as a whole discounted reports of child sex abuse, unable to conceive that those in positions of power would knowingly permit child predators the latitude to pursue one child after another. Those days, fortunately, are behind us now.
This week, Monsignor Lynn was sentenced to prison for child endangerment, which in and of itself was remarkable. What was even more stunning, however, were the words that Judge Teresa Sarmina, in Philadelphia, chose to explain why she had sentenced him to 3-to-6 years in prison. Judge Sarmina acknowledged what many letters that were addressed to her, regarding Msgr. Lynn, had observed: Lynn was a good priest, at least in his last assignment. Parishioners and family found him kind, compassionate, and charitable. She pointed out that it is easy to be a “good priest” when your values are not challenged to the core.
Thus, Judge Sarmina drew a line between the Lynn whom his family and parishioners described, and the Lynn who was “callous” and “hardhearted” when he was Secretary of the Clergy and responded to reports of abuse by simply shuttling abusing priests from one parish to another. She also made it clear that the suffering of the victims (suffering that Lynn had a role in creating) far outweighed the calls for leniency for Lynn.
In a jaw-dropping moment, Judge Sarmina also quoted the sitting Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who had said on Good Friday 2012, “Sooner or later evil undoes itself.” Yes, she called the beloved Lynn—whose family filled the courtroom and whose parishioners and lawyers demanded no jail time at all—“evil.”
That is where we are today, and as Summer 2012 melts into Fall 2012, I have no doubt that we will hear more jurists label those who aid child predators in terms that, like Judge Sarmina’s, would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. And more guilty verdicts and sentences will ensue as the justice system holds those in power to account for imperiling the vulnerable.
Lady Justice is blindfolded, but as Judge Sarmina pointed out, not blind, and as prosecutor Pat Blessington noted, she carries not only the scales of justice but also a sword.