Guest Commentary

Eric Schmitt should fix Josh Hawley’s feeble Catholic Church investigation

New York Times file photo

Under pressure from the attorney general, every bishop in the state released or expanded their lists of priests who are proven, admitted or credibly accused abusers. Some 185 names are now public.

Unfortunately, that state was Illinois, not Missouri.

In Missouri, only two of four bishops have divulged such names, and those bishops run the smallest dioceses. Yet Catholics — and all Missourians — recently learned the names of 35 clerics who have worked in the Jefferson City diocese who have also been credibly accused of molesting children, as reported in The Sedalia Democrat.

And to the south, we recently learned the names of three more similarly-accused clerics who have worked in the Diocese of Springfield–Cape Girardeau, bringing the total there to 12.

Why has no similar action been taken by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which has admitted in court filings that 115 priests and other employees there have faced child sex allegations? Only 58 of these people have been publicly identified.

And why hasn’t Kansas City Bishop James Johnston Jr., who is the only U.S. prelate whose predecessor was found guilty in court of refusing to report a known or suspected sex offender, taken action like this?

Surely, if any Catholic entity in Missouri needs to restore the trust of its members, it’s the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, where, according to BishopAccountablity.org, there are 26 publicly-accused clerics, and where two other bishops — Joseph H. Hart and Joseph V. Sullivan — face multiple and credible accusations?

This brings us to Missouri’s new attorney general, Eric Schmitt, who was sworn in earlier this month, replacing Josh Hawley after his election to the U.S. Senate.

It falls on Schmitt to continue — and improve — the probe into clergy sex abuse and cover-ups that Hawley launched months ago. Here’s how:

▪  Schmitt should lean on every Catholic official in Missouri to disclose all names of all accused clerics, like Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan did.

▪  He should insist that they include religious order clerics (about a third of all priests), not just diocesan clerics.

▪  He should mount an aggressive outreach effort, using news conferences, public service announcements and law enforcement websites, begging victims, witnesses and whistle-blowers to step forward.

▪  He should focus on the “enablers” as much as, or even more than the predators (because as long as those who conceal abuse stay in and rise in the hierarchy, cover-ups and crimes will continue.)

▪  He should sit down with the experts — both in Missouri and nationwide — who have followed this scandal for decades.

▪  Finally, he should take a simple step that Hawley refused to take: Team up with someone else.

As attorney general, Hawley maintained that he lacked subpoena power to compel bishops to turn over key church abuse records. He claimed he needed the cooperation of a local prosecutor, the governor or the General Assembly. But inexplicably, Hawley never sought that cooperation.

Schmitt should do this. Because without being forced to do so, church officials won’t voluntarily give outside investigators all of their massive files about crimes. And because without sworn testimony, they won’t have to honestly answer questions about their complicity.

Parents, police, prosecutors and parishioners across Missouri deserve to know who and where potentially predatory clerics and ex-clerics are. If bishops won’t take this simple step toward public safety, Attorney General Schmitt should do it for them.

David G. Clohessy is the former national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

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