An Often Overlooked Factor in the Church Abuse Crisis

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Catholic Church

James Ruggieri Horowitz Law

The issue of abuse within the Catholic Church, accompanied by a cascade of cover-ups, has cast long shadows over faith communities worldwide. While numerous factors are frequently discussed as potential contributors to this crisis, one vital aspect remains largely in the shadows: the palpable fear among church members and staffers of facing retaliation if they dare to report child sexual abuse, whether suspected or actually seen and regardless of whether the perpetrator is a cleric or a lay person. We hope to shed light on this critical yet often-ignored cause, exploring its implications and the urgent need for a more transparent, safe environment within the Church.

The Root of Silence

When considering the depth and breadth of the abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church, several reasons are often cited: the celibacy requirement, an all-male priesthood and hierarchy, and a monarchical power structure, among others. However, one underlying cause is frequently overlooked—the fear among church members and staffers of retaliation for reporting child sexual abuse, whether suspected or witnessed, and regardless of the perpetrator’s role within the Church.

This climate of fear was underscored recently with the appointment of Father James T. Ruggieri as the new bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine. Reports from Rhode Island highlighted a climate of reticence among parishioners at St. Michael’s church to speak openly about the priest due to fears of offending loyalists or jeopardizing their own or their relatives’ positions within the community.

It is fair and appropriate to assess Fr. Ruggieri’s suitability for becoming a bishop by examining his actions, decisions, and demeanor. It’s especially relevant – and indeed necessary, in our view – how he dealt with or responded to clergy sex abuse and cover-up reports during his tenure in Rhode Island, especially since he’s been promoted to head a diocese that encompasses an entire state. (NOTE: At least one predator priest, Fr. Ronald E. Brassard, also worked at St. Patrick’s, where Fr. Ruggieri worked most recently.)

It is also fair and appropriate to note that Fr. Ruggieri has worked in the Providence Diocese for almost 30 years. There are at least 60 publicly accused child molesting Providence. At this point, we at Horowitz Law have seen no solid evidence that Fr. Ruggieri ignored or concealed child sex crimes by any of his colleagues.

But at the same time, there’s zero evidence that he was any kind of ‘profile in courage,’ aggressively calling out any bishop, priest, monk, brother, seminarian or lay employee who minimized, hid or enabled wrongdoing. And given his long tenure in Rhode Island, the small size of the state, and the dozens of alleged offending clergy there, does it seem likely that not once did Fr. Ruggieri see or suspect any inappropriate actions towards children by fellow church staffers or volunteers? 

Think about that for a minute. Imagine you or maybe your parents are long-time St. Michael’s parishioners. A journalist from a mainstream newspaper asks you about your soon-to-depart pastor. Of course, you want to tell the truth. But you worry that if you do, you may be punished. This highlights an unhealthy atmosphere within the Church, evoking comparisons to repressive regimes rather than a sanctuary of faith and safety.

Examples of Retaliation and Silence

While the fear of speaking out is often dismissed by pointing to a lack of concrete evidence of retaliation, this stance misses the crux of the issue. Fear, as a perception of potential harm, can be equally paralyzing. The mere thought of repercussions—such as being fired, blackballed, or ostracized—can deter individuals from reporting egregious acts. It also blocks people from speaking up or taking action, even in situations as serious as known or suspected child sex crimes and cover-ups.

Instances of Pushback

In the wake of accusations and subsequent actions, notable episodes of retaliation within the Church have been documented:

In 2023, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki made headlines for stripping a priest of his canonical faculties as a punitive measure for the priest’s advocacy for survivors of rape and sexual violence by clergy. Fr. James Connell’s apparent ‘offense, in Listecki’s eyes, was his “public advocacy for legislation that would remove loopholes that allow clergy members to avoid reporting child sexual abuse to law enforcement.”

A lawsuit in 2020 against the Saginaw Michigan Diocese illuminated how an employee faced harassment from his peers after his son was molested by a priest, showcasing a direct example of retaliation against those who dare to report abuse. According to the Catholic News Agency, Gabriel Villarreal had worked in maintenance for the diocese for more than 20 years. He reported to church officials that Fr. Robert DeLand had molested his son in 2018. After that, Villarreal says, “diocesan employees began to harass him, referring to him as “the mole [spy,]” cutting his hours and benefits, and taking away his master key.”
Villarreal alleges that diocesan employees blamed him for former Bishop Joseph Cistone’s death— he died of cancer in October 2018— saying: “The bishop would still be alive if it weren’t for your son. He also alleges that diocesan employees would mock him by pretending to pick up the phone and talk to Fr. DeLand, even though DeLand was in prison at the time.

In 2015, a woman sued the Kansas City Archdiocese, charging that Catholic officials retaliated against her. Church and school staffers lodged a false child abuse complaint with the state against the mother after she raised concerns about her daughter being bullied at (a parochial) school in Shawnee.”

In 2013, a Catholic high school coach filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Sacramento diocese. He and four other coaches were fired, and five football players were expelled after reporting sexual abuse and hazing on the team. Chris Cerbone said he “reported the alleged abuse because he wanted to stop it and to protect the students” and that it was a complete shock to be fired for doing the right thing.”

These examples underscore a pervasive culture of fear and retribution that actively hinders justice and the protection of the vulnerable within the Church. The bottom line is that in any organization, there’s something wrong when the folks at the bottom are afraid to report wrongdoing to the folks at the top. And when that fear persists across decades, there’s something dreadfully wrong.

The Tangible Impact of Fear

The fear of reporting abuse within the Church extends beyond the immediate concern for personal repercussion to broader implications for families—particularly regarding education. Many parents, hoping to secure better futures for their children through parochial schools, find themselves muzzled by the fear that speaking out could result in their children being ostracized or expelled.

This fear of academic and social retaliation underscores the multifaceted impact of this crisis. For decades, most US inner cities have become poorer while their suburbs have become larger and wealthier. This has led to inner city school districts being under-funded and the reality or perception of providing sub-par education.

As a result, many families seeking better opportunities have taken their kids out of inner-city schools and put them in parochial schools. When they do, they tend to be quiet about suspected wrongdoing in the church, fearing that their kids will be ostracized or kicked out of the school mom and dad worked hard to find and fund.

A Call for Courage and Change

In any organization, the hesitance of individuals at the lower rungs to report misconduct to those in positions of authority points to significant systemic issues. When such a climate of fear has persisted for decades, it signals a profound crisis requiring immediate, sweeping reform.

The Catholic Church stands at a crossroads; for it to reclaim its role as a sanctuary of faith and safety, a culture of transparency, accountability, and protection must be fostered. Only then can it begin to heal the deep wounds inflicted by years of abuse and cover-up. It is time for courage—for bishops, priests, and laypeople alike to stand in solidarity with survivors and advocate for a church that embodies the virtues it preaches.

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.