The Treacherous Intersection of Faith and Child Abuse

Faith is a deeply personal experience, and I don't say this as a politically correct sound bite. I truly believe that I'm lucky to live in a country that values the right of its citizens to freely practice religion if they so choose. However, as a criminal prosecutor, I am repeatedly faced with situations in which people forsake reason for faith or forsake faith for reason. It's a false dilemma--a needless collision of choices. Too many make the tragic mistake of relying solely on their faith in cases of crimes, particularly child sexual abuse. Some religious groups might see these events as strictly a crisis of the soul when, in fact, concealing these atrocities only contributes to even deeper spiritual crises for the victims and their families. That's why I make this plea to families of all faiths: Please do not rely exclusively on the guidance of your religious institutions to deal with the crime of child molestation. If people truly believe in God or a higher power, then they should open their minds and hearts to the possibility that, in addition to their capacity to believe, they also possess the ability to reason for a reason.

It's impossible to pinpoint the first primordial whispers of faith or even the birth of religion--itself a communal kind of faith. Since the earliest man tilted his head to the cosmos and wondered, "Where does it all come from?" humanity has been searching for the meaning of life. Regardless of one's personal beliefs, faith and religion appear to be distinctly human phenomena, pointing us in the same direction toward the same intangible reality of a higher purpose or an unexplainable force that guides and connects us. Thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that in the search for truth, humans possess two unique sources of knowledge--reason (natural) and faith (supernatural)--and that the two were never meant to contradict one another but rather to work together.

Secrecy is essential to the crime of child molestation and when it encounters the sacred secrecy inherent to some religious organizations, an atmosphere is created in which the predator can thrive. Psychoanalyst Sue Grand has studied child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and sums up the crisis from both psychological and religious perspectives: "Secrecy, concealment, denial, ambiguity, confusion: These are Satan's fellow travelers, requiring elaborate interpersonal and intrapsychic collusion between perpetrators and bystanders. The operations of silence potentiate evil and remove all impediments from its path."

Historically, the most prominent religious organizations involved in criminal and civil child sexual abuse cases included the Roman Catholic Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church).This certainly doesn't mean that people who belong to these groups are more likely to sexually abuse children than are, say, Methodists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus. Rather, it's the manner in which these institutions have sometimes handled sexual molestation accusations that is problematic. It often leaves the pedophile free to roam and attack again.

In many criminal cases involving members of religious organizations, clergypersons have invoked what's known as the priest-penitent or clergy-penitent privilege. This allows the priest or clergy to avoid testifying in a court of law to protect the private confessions made between themselves and a confessor. Penitent privilege puts spiritual leaders and what they know about a crime beyond the reaches of the law.

Washington State attorney Timothy D. Kosnoff has dedicated more than a decade of his life to representing survivors of child sexual abuse. He has won cases against many well-respected groups--the kinds of organizations that make you think the world is basically up to everything good, including the Boy Scouts of America, a number of Catholic dioceses, the Salvation Army, the Jesuits, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among others. "Church leaders too often cover up or turn a blind eye to evidence of child sexual abuse and attempt to deal with pedophilia exclusively as a matter of sin and not as a crime and a grave threat to children and families," Kosnoff says. "No organization, and especially not a church, should knowingly allow such a thing to happen."

The rule of clergy-penitent privilege basically provides that whatever an offender says to his spiritual leader in confidence is inadmissible in court. This statute is part of a greater body of law that protects a person's right to practice his or her faith without government intrusion. If a person's faith requires him or her to confess sins, those confessions should remain confidential, regardless of the content. And if this rule applies to one religion, then by default, it applies to all.

One of the most notorious church cover-ups in American history began to crack in June 2001 in Boston, Massachusetts. Evidence had oozed to the surface that members of the Boston archdiocese, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law (a longstanding archbishop and arguably once the most powerful Catholic leader in the United States), had knowingly allowed pedophilic priests to keep their jobs. Through the years, as victims' complaints arose, Cardinal Law had secretly authorized the silent transfers of dozens of priests to new, unsuspecting parishes. The transfers included the infamous Rev. John J. Geoghan, later accused of molesting hundreds of young children. Eventually convicted of indecent assault and battery of a ten-year-old boy in 2002, Geoghan was sentenced to serve nine to ten years in prison. He was slain by another inmate in 2003.

By turning a deaf ear and blind eye to the victims' accusations, the church hierarchy had put the protection of its priests above the safety and well-being of its parishioners, and had provided the abusers free rein to prey on a new, unsuspecting group of children. A pivotal legal battle ensued between the Boston Globe and the Roman Catholic Church to pierce the priests' confidential status and release the records of complaints against Geoghan. In November 2001, the Boston Globe won the battle in Massachusetts Superior Court, and the abuses as well as the Catholic Church cover-up were finally exposed.

Since then, courts have begun to seriously question religious leaders who refuse to share information concerning crimes. For example, in 2005 and 2006, two California courts rejected the penitent exemption in civil cases, ruling that clergy of both the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Roman Catholic Church must disclose any information important to a case of child sexual abuse. These cases signaled a turning point for the perpetrators, the victims, and society. They set a pivotal precedent in helping the foot soldiers of the criminal justice system convict more pedophiles.

The practice of confession and repentance, which has been around since the Middle Ages, is important to many faiths. The primary argument for respecting its value is to uphold people's rights to practice their own religions freely, without government interference. But is it ethical to place the sanctity of confessionals above the safety of the innocent--especially if this leaves the miscreant free to continue his attacks? In reality, what happens is the opposite of why the confessional privilege was created in the first place: Neither the person nor the principles are protected and, in the end, the very foundation upon which the faith was built lies decimated.

Religious leaders have a responsibility to care for and protect members of their congregations and communities. That's why the reporting of child abuse to the police and child protective services (rather than to the church's legal department or clergyperson) should stand as the primary tenet in any book of faith. The confessional was created so that people could reveal their torments to God and genuinely ask for forgiveness. In fact, the meaning of the word "repentance" indicates actually altering one's thinking and making a significant change.

Although I agree that we need the legal protection of the clergy, penitent privilege should never be broadly or loosely interpreted. Our laws should be based in the common sense and common morality of what we, as a society, believe is right or wrong to do to another human being. We can't allow this exemption to shield child molesters.