How an Institution’s First Response to Sexual Abuse Reports Can Say So Much

by | Aug 4, 2023 | Catholic Church, Firm News

Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Horowitz Law

When an institution or employer is hit with a report of suspected child sexual assault, generally speaking, you can tell a lot about that institution by what its leadership does in its first response. Whether it’s a verbal or written report, direct or indirect, or criminal or civil case, here’s the rule of thumb you can use to at least initially decide whether the institution or employer cares about finding the truth or protecting itself. It’s very simple: Do they ask others for help? Or do they ask others for nothing?

If they ask you to do something, that’s a good sign. If they don’t, that’s a bad sign. When confronted with known or suspected child sex crimes, institutions and employers have a straightforward choice. They can beg their employees and the public to act. Or they can try to lull them into complacency. All too often, they chose the latter course.

The former is the responsible option. The ideal institutional response to virtually any report that a boy or girl may have been assaulted includes phrases like these:

  • “If you know or suspect ANYTHING about these allegations, please contact law enforcement immediately.”
  • “We beg you to speak up if you have any information that might help the full truth about these allegations become known.”
  • “You might think you’re protecting this institution or business or organization that you care about by keeping silent. You aren’t. In fact, you’re doing just the opposite. But keeping quiet about whatever you know or suspect about these allegations, you are not only endangering kids but also endangering us.”

This isn’t rocket science. Still, many decision-makers listen to fearful or irresponsible public relations advisors and defense lawyers instead of doing what’s right. These decision-makers, in essence, say what their advisors advise them to say: “Nothing to see here. Just one allegation. From a long time ago. We’re handling this. No need to worry. Just move along, ok?”

Think we’re exaggerating? Think we’re being unfair? Look at this statement issued just over six months ago by the Arlington, Virginia Diocese: 

“On Friday, September 30, the Diocese of Arlington received allegations of sexual abuse of minors related to Fr. Robert Buchmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. The allegations allege abuse prior to his ordination in 1991. After reviewing the preliminary information, the Diocese of Arlington provided the allegations to the Archdiocese of Washington, where Fr. Buchmeier is incardinated, and immediately reported it to Alexandria City Police. Upon request, we will participate in any archdiocesan or law enforcement investigation and provide pastoral support and counseling to the alleged victims and their families. The Diocese of Arlington has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse. No one with a credible accusation of abuse of minors is serving in the Diocese. We are committed to training our clergy, staff, and volunteers to identify and report suspected instances of abuse. The Diocese of Arlington encourages anyone who knows of any misconduct or abuse on the part of any cleric, employee, or volunteer of the Diocese to notify civil authorities, as well as to reach out to the diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator at (703) 841-2530.”

First, notice the passivity here. The first seven sentences in a row are all about “Here’s what we say happened and what we’re doing.” Not a peep about what current or former church members or staffers might do right now. 

Second, notice the lack of urgency. Fr. Buchmeier is alive. So he could be charged, convicted, and imprisoned, and thus unable (for at least some period) to hurt anyone else. So not only is he accused of a serious crime, but right now, he’s capable of committing more crimes, AND if anyone with knowledge or suspicions about him calls 911, more suffering might be prevented. Why not give contact information, names of individuals, their emails, their phone numbers for ‘civil authorities? Why not make it easy for other victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers to report?

Third, notice the blatant attempt to say, ‘Cool your jets. We’ve got this handled.’ The diocese, we are assured, “has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse.” This raises two obvious questions: ‘Who doesn’t?’ and ‘So what?’ The church hierarchy’s actions matter, not the church hierarchy’s policy.’ And notice that Arlington’s bishop claims he’s “committed to training our clergy, staff, and volunteers to identify and report suspected instances of abuse. And if the bishop is ASKED, he promises he’ll do more. “Upon request, we will participate in any archdiocesan or law enforcement investigation and provide pastoral support and counseling to the alleged victims and their families.”)He won’t ASK his flock to step up or speak up. He’ll sit back and wait for his phone to ring.

There are many other deficiencies in this statement. Where was Fr. Buchmeier working when this report was made? Where did the alleged abuse take place? Where else has Fr. Buchmeier worked in the past? Where is he now? But again, the overall tone is “We’re dealing with this. You don’t have to do anything. Just move on.” 

Ask yourself, “If my child was at a school, summer camp, Scout group, sporting event, or other institution and abuse was suspected or reported, would I rather be told “Nothing to fret about. We’ve got this under control.” Or “Something really bad may have happened here. And it might happen again tonight, tomorrow, or next month. You can help us can help the authorities figure out if one or two, or ten children have been raped. And you might help prevent this horror from happening to other kids. We hope you’ll help police and prosecutors get to the bottom of this.”

We at Horowitz Law suspect you’d prefer the active and prudent approach, the second option. We’re saddened that so many Catholic officials still prefer the passive and complacent approach.

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because you were sexually abused by a member of a religious organization, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.