It was a particularly depressing headline that we at Horowitz Law saw last week, partly because it was the latest in a string of depressing developments across the US. “Three years later, few signs of life in state’s child sex abuse probe,” began an article in the Albany Times Union.
The story explains how, back in 2020, the attorney general of New York announced a statewide investigation into the crimes and cover-ups of child sexual abuse by Catholic institutions and officials over the past several decades. Survivors, advocates, and child protection activists were understandably overjoyed. Now, however, the Times Union reports that little progress has been made, and few, if any, updates have been given by AG staffers. We’ve seen this before.
- In June 2022, the FBI disclosed that it had interviewed more than a dozen local alleged abuse victims in New Orleans as part of “a widening investigation into sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans going back decades. Since then, however, crickets.
- In July, victims groups publicly challenged the attorney general in Massachusetts to tell the public about the status of her office’s nearly two-year-old investigation of bishops initiated in the fall of 2021 by her predecessor, Maura Healey.
- In August 2022, Southern Baptist Convention officials revealed that the US Department of Justice had begun investigating the group’s handling of sexual crimes by its clergy. The SBC “acknowledged that it had received a subpoena” and claimed that staff “from Southern Baptist seminaries, missionary groups, the Executive Committee and other entities: would “cooperate fully.”
Again, in the subsequent months, not a single update. Does it really have to be this “all or nothing” approach? Is there no “in-between” – in which law enforcement officials disclose SOMETHING about their clergy sex abuse investigations instead of saying absolutely NOTHING, which leaves victims feeling confused and demoralized and potentially leaves those who commit and conceal abuse encouraged to keep doing wrong? At least two governmental entities have taken a somewhat more sensitive and reasonable approach. They gave short and mostly vague but still helpful public updates while their investigations were still going on.
In 2019, the Kansas Bureau of Investigations launched its probe into clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. In 2021, they provided an update that showed the agency got 215 tips and opened 122 cases as of that point.
In 2018, then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan gave a ‘preliminary report’ on her probe. She publicly identified 185 clergy members as having been “credibly” accused of child sexual abuse and found that the state’s dioceses have received allegations of sexual abuse of at least 500 additional priests and clergy. “At the outset of the investigation, only two of the dioceses had published a list of “credibly” accused clerics,” Madigan said in a news release. As a result of the investigation, the four other Illinois dioceses have compiled and published similar lists. Also, as a result of Madigan’s office reviewing diocese files, over the past four months, the dioceses have added 45 clergy to the lists of those who have been “credibly” accused, resulting in a total of 185 clergy members whom the dioceses have publicly identified.”
Why are updates like this important? These updates give hope to victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers. They prove to doubters that, indeed, law enforcement takes child sexual abuse much more seriously than ever before. The updates serve as a gentle nudge to those who might report crimes and cover-ups that they have deadlines. (Every investigation has an ending at some point.) As for the wrongdoers, preliminary abuse probe results can remind them that they continue to be under scrutiny. Finally, for law enforcement, these reports – even early in an investigation – can help them prod recalcitrant church officials to take small steps towards prevention, healing, and disclosure (as Madigan did in Illinois).
We at Horowitz Law understand that most details of a pending probe must be withheld from the public to be effective. Otherwise, the bad guys may figure out precisely which among them are being targeted by police and prosecutors, who within their ilk might be ‘spilling the beans’ to learn. But as the Kansas and Illinois examples show, there is a middle ground between totally withholding all information and recklessly endangering an investigation by disclosing too much information.
We at Horowitz Law encourage every single person who saw, suspected, or suffered clergy sex crimes or cover-ups to contact law enforcement, whether there’s a current investigation in their jurisdiction or not. And we encourage police, prosecutors, and attorneys general to think long and hard about whether they can disclose more about their child sex abuse probes than they’re generally disclosing. View this list of some of the attorney general investigations across the US.
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 a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, 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.