What do the Catholic clergy sex abuse and the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking scandals have in common other than disclosure through award-winning journalism? They both involved powerful men who worked in deep secret to protect their mutual interests while literally ignoring the suffering of a seemingly unlimited number of child victims.
Led by then-Miami US Attorney Alex Acosta, a team of federal prosecutors repeatedly communicated with Epstein’s lawyers about their agreement not to prosecute Epstein for a child sex abuse trafficking system that involved dozens of girls. But it wasn’t just a non-prosecution agreement (“NPA”); it was also a deal to keep the negotiations secret from the victims.
That’s right: here is Epstein’s attorney, Jay Lefkowitz, writing to the prosecutor: “Please do whatever you can to keep this . . . from becoming public.” Thus, their written NPA stated: “The parties anticipate that this agreement will not be made part of any public record. If the United States receives a Freedom of Information Act request or any compulsory process commanding the disclosure of the agreement, it will provide notice to Epstein before making that disclosure.” And, yes, the federal government agreed to notify a serial pedophile who set up a sex trafficking system in his mansion in case their little agreement was forced into the public. God forbid a good man like Epstein would not have notice his despicable crimes were going public!
Not only was the deal secret, but they misled the victims into believing Epstein was on the way to prosecution when they had already entered into a deal to let Epstein plead to state charges only and get a short sentence.
There were repeated communications between the feds and Epstein’s lawyers in which the prosecutors were nauseatingly deferential to Epstein’s team’s demands for secrecy about the deal and the need to protect Epstein from having to pay damages to all of the victims. Epstein’s team was of course concerned about image and power. Ah, yes, that is identical to the Catholic story. Adults really mattered; kids did not.
Lo and behold! Federal District Judge Kenneth Marra issued a ruling in the Epstein case this week that shifts the balance of power to the victims. The court ruled that the federal prosecutors who excluded the victims from their negotiations with Epstein violated the federal Crime Victims Rights Act.
Now, after the Epstein ruling yesterday, that is where the similarity ends. While the Vatican just can’t get out of its own way on this issue, the Epstein scandal has been filtered through the courts. The latter radically changed the calculus by empowering the victims against a powerful man’s secret cabal.
The Vatican Still Doesn’t Understand That Only the Secular Legal System Can Save It From Its Ingrained Sex Abuse System
This week, the Vatican is holding its meeting of bishops from around the world to do something about the child sex abuse cancer eating away at the Church. For anyone who had high hopes, the Pope issued a warning of the need to “deflate” expectations before the meeting even started! As I wrote here last November, the Church needs to make the children and the victims the raison d’être for all they do on this issue, and to embrace the secular legal system and the civil rights of the victims. In fact, the opposite has happened this week with victims left standing outside for the duration of the meetings except for a short meeting between a papal representative and a few survivors. Regardless, the Pope did issue a handy 21-point guide for consideration. This guide is just further confirmation of the Church’s incapacity to see that the only appropriate and inevitable moral result here is justice for the victims that upends the men who have orchestrated the cover up.
The guide includes highlights like this one: “5. Inform the civil authorities and the higher ecclesiastical authorities in compliance with civil and canonical norms.” Why are these two worlds mingled in one sentence? This is the muddle they can’t find their way out of. There should be one line that says: “Inform the civil authorities, period.” And a separate one, if they want, that says: “Inform the higher ecclesiastical authorities in compliance with canonical norms.” Instead it implies that civil obligations are modified by canonical norms, which have included the rule against scandal that forbids telling outsiders about bad behavior by priests. This confusion between the secular and the religious spheres is further underscored by the last point: “21. Where it has not yet been in place, establish a group easily accessible for victims who want to report any crimes. Such an organization should have a certain autonomy with respect to the local ecclesiastical authority and include expert persons (clerics and laity) who know how to express the Church’s attention to those who have been offended by improper attitudes on the part of clerics.” What?
They cling to the possibility of false claims despite the avalanche of cases globally: “11. To consolidate the collaboration with all people of good will and with the operators of mass media in order to recognize and discern real cases from false ones and accusations of slander, avoiding rancour and insinuations, rumours and defamation (cf. Pope Francis’ address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2018).” Really? They persist in embracing the false story line that there are a meaningful number of false claims about child sex abuse in these cases. Where are these false claims occurring? Ahh, that’s right, their defense lawyer’s imaginations, which are fed by the insurance lobbyists’ fantasies.
Just to prove the bishops are incapable of making children and victims the centerpiece of their world, there is of course great concern about harming the alleged perpetrators’ reputations: “14. The right to defence: the principle of natural and canon law of presumption of innocence must also be safeguarded until the guilt of the accused is proven. Therefore, it is necessary to prevent the lists of the accused being published, even by the dioceses, before the preliminary investigation and the definitive condemnation.” Hmmmm.
While the bishops are dithering in Rome, the American justice system is showing how to honor victims and undermine the powerful cabals that have treated their suffering as mere collateral damage.
In Sharp Contrast, the Epstein Decision Under the Crime Victims Rights Act Levels the Playing Field
While the clergy sex abuse victims stand outside in Rome waiting to be heard by the bishops, Epstein’s victims were empowered by the federal court that held that they could not be excluded from the negotiations over the deal the federal prosecutors cut with Epstein. The legal system, through the federal Crime Victims Rights Act, made their exclusion illegal. The result is rich: In lieu of bishopric handwringing, the federal government was ordered by Judge Marra to speak to the victims to find a solution in 15 days!
So the open question is what can they do? It only seems fair that the NPA be dissolved and current federal prosecutors actually prosecute Epstein for child sex trafficking and sex assault. While they are at it, they need to charge the co-conspirators whose identities were concealed, i.e., the other “johns” who took advantage of the girls that Epstein served up to them. We are way past the time when it is acceptable to engage in statutory rape and get a slap on the wrist. This was a trafficking ring with dozens of poor girls subjected to sex assault by wealthy and powerful men.
When it cut the non-prosecution deal, the federal government treated Epstein like royalty and the victims like throwaways. This decision, in sharp contrast, puts the correct moral prism on these facts: Epstein is a rank criminal who never deserves to see the light of day given the number of lives he destroyed, the federal prosecutors who “negotiated” the NPA deserve deep public shame, and these victims deserve their day in court to testify and be validated. It is obvious which development is positive for child protection, and it’s not in Rome.
Crime victims’ and children’s civil rights pave the only path out of these dark systems of deals and denials into the sunlight of justice.
*A separate question is what should happen to Alex Acosta, now the head of the Department of Labor, which polices human trafficking. As I said here, he must go.