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Opinion Another state, another clergy sex abuse scandal

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson discusses the findings of a statewide Catholic Church sex abuse investigation on Nov. 4 in Lincoln, Neb. (Grant Schulte/AP)

Nebraska’s attorney general recently identified 57 priests and other Catholic officials responsible for allegedly sexually abusing more than 250 victims, mainly boys, over decades while the church’s hierarchy shrugged or covered up the crimes. The number of clerics who will be criminally prosecuted is zero.

Yes, it’s an old story. And no, the sheer repetitiveness of what is by now a well known pattern of conduct within the church should not cauterize the outrage nor inure lawmakers to the urgency of action.

As in other states, and many countries, prosecuting clerical abusers in Nebraska for crimes committed years ago is impossible because the criminal statute of limitations has closed or the abusers themselves are dead. Most of the instances of reported abuse documented by the state attorney general’s office took place in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s and tapered off over the past 20 years. Nebraska has changed its laws to eliminate any time limit on prosecutions for future child sex assaults, but past cases remain off limits both for criminal charges and for lawsuits.

It’s an old story; it’s also a current one. Sexual abuse is notoriously under-reported, especially when the victims are children unaware, or not fully cognizant, that what they have experienced is a crime. Typically, the victims, whose abusers are often authority figures, say nothing for years. Today’s youthful victims, in the Catholic Church or any other setting, might not come forward for a decade or two.

In Nebraska, the hair-raising details of Attorney General Doug Peterson’s report reflect the depth of the church’s arrogance and impunity. It’s noteworthy that one of the state’s three dioceses, based in Lincoln, for years refused to participate in the church’s own annual reviews of sexual misconduct. Incredibly, the church tolerated it. It was in Lincoln that church higher-ups knew about multiple allegations of sexual abuse for at least 15 years against James Benton, a priest who continued on in ministry until his retirement in 2017. Some of the allegations against him dated from the early 1980s.

The number of victims of clerical abuse who have come forward to report abuse exploded after a major investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, which published a report on it in 2018. The next year, allegations of past abuse quadrupled, to more than 4,400, and stayed roughly in that range in 2020, according to the latest annual report on the subject by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Despite those reports, and that scrutiny, just about 10 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that allow victims to file lawsuits for past abuse, by briefly suspending the statute of limitations in “lookback windows.” Amazingly, Pennsylvania, where the grand jury documented roughly 300 priests accused of abusing more than 1,000 children, is not one of those states.

It is true that the U.S. Catholic Church has been more proactive than its counterparts in almost every other country in identifying clerical sex abusers and cooperating with investigative authorities. Yet the U.S. bishops have also continued spending tens of millions of dollars annually lobbying state lawmakers to prevent changes in law that would allow lawsuits for past clerical sex crimes — and enable a measure of justice and healing for victims. That is morally indefensible.

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