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Sex abuse victims sue Catholic Church under RICO, while Pope Francis and U.S. bishops remain complacent

On November 13, 2018, six American survivors of priest sex-abuse filed a class-action civil lawsuit at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against the Vatican (Holy See) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), citing a federal anti-racketeering law known as RICO.

The six plaintiffs who claim they had been abused by clergy as minors: Timothy B. Lennon, of Arizona; Mark S. Belenchia, of Mississippi; Alfred L. Antonsen Jr., of Illinois; Joseph Piscitelli, of California; Shaun A. Dougherty, of Pennsylvania; and Mark Crawford, of New Jersey. (LifeSiteNews)

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal law  on racketeering — conspiring to organize to commit crimes, especially on an ongoing basis as part of an organized crime operation.

In “How to Make a RICO Case Against Gangs,” Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine, November 20, 2008, Sgt. Richard Valdemar, a retired L.A. County sheriff, points out that the importance of RICO is that it is used successfully to indict and convict members of a corrupt organization who themselves had not committed criminal acts. In his words:

Any member of any criminal enterprise can be charged with RICO racketeering if he can be shown to have committed two of 27 federal or eight state charges within a 10-year period as part of the enterprise. A person can be charged even if that person did not directly commit the crime but only agreed to the commission or conspired with the perpetrators in any way.

Sgt. Valdemar explains that a RICO trial usually consists of two phases:

  1. First you must prove the criminal organization or enterprise esists.
  2. Secondly, you must prove that those charged in the indictment have each committed at least two acts of racketeering activity, one within the recent proscribed period and the second within 10 years. These are called “predicate acts” and they show a pattern of criminal acts as opposed to individual acts if they “have the same or similar purpose, results, participants, victims, or methods of commission, or otherwise are interrelated by distinguishing characteristics and are not isolated events.”

In the case of the class-action civil suit against the Vatican and U.S. bishops, the Vatican is sued as a foreign state, an unincorporated association, and as the “head of an international religious organization”; and the U.S. bishops as leaders of “an unincorporated association”.

The 80-page lawsuit states:

1. This case is about the endemic, systemic, rampant, and pervasive rape and sexual abuse of Plaintiffs and Class Members perpetrated by Roman Catholic Church cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests, sisters, lay leaders, members of Catholic religious orders, educators, and other of Defendants’ personnel, members, agents, and representatives (collectively, “Clergy” or “Catholic Clergy”) while serving in active ministry—with the knowledge of Defendants. Rather than safeguarding and protecting Plaintiffs and Class Members—who were minor children at the time—Defendants protected the abusive Clergy, took extraordinary measures to conceal their wrongful conduct, moved them from parish to parish, without warning church members or the general public, thereby further facilitating their predatory practices, failed and refused to report the abusive Clergy to law enforcement or other responsible authorities as required by law, and—incredibly—even promoted the abusive Clergy. Defendants’ wrongful acts are ongoing and continuous….

3. The RICO enterprise alleged in this Complaint is the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, an unincorporated association-in-fact…. This association-in-fact enterprise will be referred to as the “Church Enterprise” or the “Enterprise.” As of 2017, there were over 37,000 Catholic priests and other Clergy in the Church Enterprise. Each diocese is headed by a bishop who, in turn, is a member of Defendant USCCB….
5. Defendants’ schemes to defraud involved (and continue to involve) means of false or fraudulent pretenses and/or fraudulent and intentionally misleading representations and omissions, including, inter alia, (i) Defendants (and the Clergy) secretly misrepresenting to Plaintiffs and Class Members—through their words and deeds—that they were men of faith who had Plaintiffs’ and Class Members’ best interests at heart, and then, knowing that Plaintiffs and Class Members relied on their representations and put their faith and trust in the Clergy as their spiritual leaders, took advantage of their positions of power and influence and sexually abused Plaintiffs and Class Members, (ii) Defendants (and the Clergy) misrepresenting to Plaintiffs, Class Members, Defendants, the Clergy, and/or other third parties—explicitly and/or implicitly—that the wrongful sexual abuse did not occur (denial and deceit), (iii) Defendants (and the Clergy) shifting the focus of the allegations to Plaintiffs and Class by painting them as liars, alleging Plaintiffs and Class Members falsified the charges, or that they suffered from some mental illness giving rise to their allegations of Clergy sexual abuse, and (iv) Defendants (and the Clergy) actively and fraudulently concealing the Clergy’s wrongful sexual abuse by, among other things, (a) burying the charges deep within Defendants’ organizations and affirmatively deciding not to publicize, properly investigate, or act on them, (b) failing and refusing to terminate, or even discipline, abusing Clergy, (c) moving the abusive Clergy from parish to parish, without warning church members or the general public, thereby further facilitating their predatory practices, failing and refusing to report the abusive Clergy to law enforcement or other responsible authorities as required by law, and even promoting abusive Clergy, and (iv) using all available means to look the other way, deny, obstruct the investigation of, and conceal Clergy sexual abuse. Defendants’ wrongful acts are open-ended, ongoing, and continuous.
6. As a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ (and the Clergy’s) above-referenced wrongful actions, inaction, omissions, cover-up, deception, and concealment, obstructive behavior regarding investigations, and conspiracy of silence, inter alia, (i) Plaintiffs and Class Members have suffered (and will continue to suffer) physical and/or mental injury, pain, suffering, and other actual and consequential injury, harm, and economic damages to themselves, their businesses and/or their property, (ii) Defendants have maintained (and will continue to maintain) their reputations and maintained and expanded (and will continue to expand and maintain) their commercial operations in the United States whereby Defendants and the Enterprise obtained (and will continue to obtain) money, funds, credits, assets, and/or other property, and (iii) Defendants wrongfully shifted the risk, expense, and pain, and suffering of the Clergy sexual abuse to Plaintiffs and Class Members and robbed them of their childhood, youth, innocence, virginity, families, jobs, finances, assets—in short, their lives.

So what is the reaction of Vatican and U.S. bishops to the clergy sex-abuse scandal and the class-action RICO lawsuit?

On November 12, 2018, at the conclusion of the annual conference of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, Maryland, conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said the USCCB will delay action to deal with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy until after a global meeting in February at the request of the Vatican.

As reported by Ed Condon for Catholic News Agency:

[M]any U.S. bishops expected their November general assembly in Baltimore to produce something tangible – a new policy, structure, or system – that would help them reassure Catholics that they were responding to months of sexual abuse scandals breaking across the Church.

But after a last-minute Vatican’s decision to suspend a vote on draft measures until after a Rome meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences in February, it seems likely that no universal response to the crisis will emerge until at least the second half of 2019.

Some U.S. bishops have told CNA they now realize that if they want to initiate new reforms, they’ll have to do so in their own dioceses, using the ordinary prerogatives of a diocesan bishop.

For more on this, see “Why Vatican wanted to block U.S. bishops’ reform“.

Meanwhile, the clergy sex abuse of children is exacting a financial toll on the U.S. Catholic Church which will only get worse:

  • In September, Legatus — an organization of Catholic business leaders — announced it was placing its annual donation to the Holy See in escrow until it can receive clarification on questions of financial accountability — how the money is being used, and what financial accountability exists within the Vatican for such charitable contributions. According to the Wall Street Journal, Legatus’ 2018 tithe to the Holy See would have been about $820,000. (Catholic News Agency)
  • On November 18, 2018, the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota announced it will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, due to the 121 claims of child sexual abuse by 17 priests within the diocese. In a recorded video statement posted on the diocesan website, Bishop John Quinn said that on behalf of his brother priests, he “offer(s) an apology to these survivors and acknowledge their pain and suffering,” and pledged to “remain vigilant” to prevent abuse in the future. Survivors of clerical sexual abuse in the diocese will be compensated by a combination of insurance, savings, money from the sale of assets, and other sources. No parishes or parish schools will be closing due to the bankruptcy filing because they are separate legal entities. (Catholic News Agency)
  • On November 29, 2018, a day after New Mexico’s attorney general executed a search warrant on the chancery office of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for files related to two priests accused of sexual abuse, the archdioce announced it will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization to meet its responsibility to sexual abuse victims. There are 35-40 active claims against the archdiocese.(Catholic News Agency)

See also:

Update (Feb. 12, 2019):

As reported by National Catholic Register, Philip Gray, a canon lawyer and the president of Catholics United for the Faith and the St. Joseph Foundation, points out that bishops do not have to wait for the USCCB or the Vatican to act. He said, “I don’t believe the bishops need any more tools,” because the bishops were given additional tools after the 2002 sex-abuse crisis — tools that they have not been using. Even when it comes to their fellow bishops, diocesan bishops have the ability to act on allegations:

  • They can open investigations and forward the results to the Pope with recommendations of their own.
  • A diocesan bishop can remove an auxiliary bishop from a diocesan office, as well as bar a fellow bishop facing credible allegations from celebrating Mass on diocesan property or wearing pontifical vestments.

~Eowyn

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