The Catholic Church continues to be excoriated over its decades-long sexual abuse scandal. Revelations have continued to come out across the world of thousands of Catholics, primarily children, who suffered sexual abuse over decades, only to be ignored or silenced by a Catholic hierarchy that held to an institutional policy of covering up allegations and shuffling around accused clergy, allowing predatory priests to continue to victimize children for years (Vox has a thorough summary of the ongoing crisis within the Church).
In the United States, Pennsylvania is the latest epicenter of the Church’s crisis, as a grand jury report released in August over the objection of the Church officials detailed how hundreds of priests abused over 1,000 children in the state since at least the 1940s. Unfortunately, most of these crimes cannot be prosecuted by state law, as the statues of limitation for these crimes has run out.
Now, however, federal prosecutors announced last week
that they have opened up an investigation into both the abuses committed by priests in Pennsylvania and the institutional efforts to cover them up. Federal law gives the US Attorney General’s office tools not available to states. For instance, prosecutors will seek to determine if any priests violated the Mann Act
, a federal law that applies to interstate sex trafficking. This Mann Act, initially passed in 1910, has been controversial throughout its history, as its initial application to “immoral purposes” was used to target individuals engaged in consensual adult activities, most notably Jack Johnson
, the first black U.S. heavyweight boxing champion, who was charged soon after the act was passed for traveling with an adult white girlfriend.
Federal prosecutors may employ an even more controversial tactic; they have the option of not only charging priests who abused children, but also those who covered it up, and to do so, prosecutors may appeal to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act
, more commonly known as RICO. If you’re a fan of gangster movies or crime TV shows (NSFW
), you may have heard of RICO (it’s the law that Harvey Dent uses to prosecute Gotham City’s gangsters after rounding them up in The Dark Knight
, for example). In real life, RICO was passed in 1970 as part of the federal government’s battle against organized crime; most state governments adopted their own RICO laws as well.
RICO is designed to specifically targets organizations, specifically those engaged in “racketeering
,” a vaguely-defined legal term used for organized criminal activity. In addition to the New York mafia, which along with mob outfits in other major cities was largely decimated using RICO
, various types of organizations are covered by the law, including illegal gambling operations, biker gangs, dogfighting rings, embezzlement schemes, and human trafficking rings; even international soccer organization FIFA
was targeted with a RICO case for bribery surrounding location of the World Cup.
The key to RICO is that it can be used to go after all those involved in a criminal conspiracy, not just the individuals who physically commit the act. Furthermore, RICO allows the government to seize assets
of organizations engaged in criminal activity whenever its believed that funds are “more likely than not” related to criminal activity, even for suspects who have not been convicted (or, sometimes even charged) in criminal court: critics say this gives the government too much power to take private property for dubious reasons
. Law enforcement, however, note that this is a powerful tool that can cripple criminal organizations more thoroughly than does the prosecution of their leaders.
There are obstacles to employing RICO against the Catholic Church. From a legal standpoint, the types of underlying crimes covered under federal RICO rules are those that financially benefit a (criminal) organization, and child abuse is generally not considered to be such a crime
; although RICO would currently allow the feds to go after the Church civilly, the act may need amendment before it could be used for criminal prosecution.
This permissive form of religious freedom
is different from that practiced in other western nations like France, where the government asserts the right to more heavily regulate and restrict religion in the name of state interests. As a result, even though abusive priests have been prosecuted when their crimes fell within statutes of limitation, few criminal cases have been brought concerning Church cover-ups in the U.S.; in contrast, Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson
was convicted and jailed for covering up sexual abuse, and several French bishops, including a Cardinal and another archbishop
, are scheduled to go on trial next year for concealing abuse in that country.
Even in the U.S., though, religion is not a defense against prosecution for a crime. In 2012, Philadelphia priest William Lynn became the first Catholic official in the U.S. convicted of covering-up abuse by others, but his conviction was overturned on appeal and he awaits retrial. By using the RICO act, the government could be able to charge as a group all those it can prove were party to a cover up in Pennsylvania, rather than building separate, discrete cases against individual Church officials. If federal prosecutors do in fact invoke RICO, (or state prosecutors begin to use their own RICO laws, some of which are more permissive of cases on grounds such as fraud) Lynn may be the first of several top officials to be criminally charged. Beyond the constitutional question of going after a religious institution, prosecutors have generally been wary of the optics of treating the United States’ largest religious organization like a crime family. But with public support plummeting for both the Church and its leadership, public outcry may actually tip the government’s hand toward taking this unprecedented step.