Lawyers Contributed to Priest Abuse Problems

One of the awful threads running through the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on Catholic priests who abused minors is the role of lawyers. While there may indeed have been lawyers who helped the situation, the only ones mentioned in the report assisted in the cover-up, in one way or another.

For example, one District Attorney investigated an abuse case in the 1960’s. After interviewing a child victim and his mother, the DA wrote the bishop that, “in order to prevent unfavorable publicity,” the DA had “halted all further investigations into incidents involving young boys.” When the Grand Jury asked the former DA why he had deferred to the bishop, he said, “I really have no proper answer.” He admitted he needed the bishop’s support for his political career (p. 216). Prosecutorial discretion is a hallmark of the American criminal justice system, but this poor decision meant other children became victims of this abusive priest in Beaver County.

Other lawyers complicit in the cover-up represented the various dioceses. They helped bishops find ways to move abusive priests to other dioceses or out-of-state, and they insisted on non-disclosure agreements in the civil cases they settled, all to ensure that names and behavior of criminal priests would not be publicly disclosed. In some cases, they actively sought to discredit the victims “with unrelated and irrelevant attacks,” according to the Grand Jury report. For example, in one case in Allentown, the diocesan attorney found an informant who stated that the girl who alleged that she was a victim of the priest abuse was “one of the girls who had an affair with a coach at Central Catholic.” The Grand Jury noted that the “information that a Central Catholic coach may have been sexually abusing students was used as evidence against the victim, instead of yet another crime not reported to the police.” (p. 25) In a Harrisburg case where a priest molested five sisters from one family, the Grand Jury reported, “Diocesan lawyers argued that the Diocese was not responsible for the conduct of its agents.” (p. 168)

Although these attorneys purported to represent the diocese, it appears that they were representing only the bishop, and even the abusive priests – and not looking out at all for the well-being of the families that comprised the diocese. The Grand Jury found instances where the diocesan attorney recommended that the bishop remove a particular priest from his post, but it didn’t cite any instance where the attorney advised the bishop to report the abusive priest to the civil authorities.

Lawyers who represented victims suing the diocese were surely trying to seek justice for their clients. But many of these cases resulted in some monetary compensation plus a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). One wonders whether the victims might have preferred the opposite—they might have been willing to forego some of the money if the priest’s name and behavior were publicized. The Grand Jury report suggests that, at least for some victims, “justice” meant exposure, ending the secrecy (see p. 4). Being compelled to sign an NDA only perpetuated the secrecy surrounding these crimes.

A lawyer has an ethical obligation to render candid advice to a client, taking into account not only legal but also moral considerations (Model Rules of Professional Conduct 2.1). Were there lawyers who encouraged bishops to honor victims above priests, to remove offending priests immediately and permanently from positions where they had access to children, to establish safeguards and reporting mechanisms to prevent further abuse? The report makes no mention of this. Sometimes lawyers are the heroes who make sure justice triumphs – but not here.

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