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Learning From the Vatican's Problems: What the U.S. Must Do to Protect Children Now

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In the last several weeks, Germany and Brazil have been added to the already lengthy list of countries where there is irrefutable evidence of childhood sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. The Pope, whose previous role in the Vatican made him the primary policymaker on this issue, has even been implicated in the persistent, global pattern of abuse -- most recently in a case involving hundreds of deaf boys in Wisconsin. Moreover, there now appears to be overwhelming evidence that Benedict, as the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was aware of hundreds -- if not thousands -- of other especially heinous cases of abusive priests who were allowed to continue pastoring despite proof of their horrific actions and went on to victimize more children. And, in 2001, in what many are now calling nothing short of an obstruction of justice, he issued a definitive letter requiring that the handling of child sexual abuse issues be under the "pontifical secret."

Yet, the Pope's responses lag well behind the world's demands for accountability; last weekend, as the crisis continued to spiral across Europe, he offered a written apology in response to the months-long crisis in Ireland. Yet, he remains mute on Germany, his own home country, and on Brazil, where the evidence of abuse has been caught on tape. The Catholic system, though, does not permit the Pope to be removed from office without his assent. So if countries are to protect their children, they will have to take action on their own.

Such is the case in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly and decisively demanded and launched an in-depth investigation into the abuse of her country's children not long after the facts about the Catholic order-run residential schools became known. In contrast, the United States government has yet to respond to the issue within - or outside - its borders. Even as the abuse scandal rocked our nation over the past decade, both President Bush and now President Obama have remained virtually silent. The State Department has also been negligent by not taking a position.

The time for fence-sitting is over. As the leader in the free world for human rights enforcement, the U.S. can no longer remain on the sidelines in the face of the breadth and depth of such appalling violations by the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy against children.

In fact, the State Department has useful procedures and protocols already in place that should be invoked to study and document past abuse, and deter it in the future. For example, it issues yearly reports on human rights violations and practices in foreign countries. So, I would argue that it is hardly a stretch to add the Holy See as a country to be studied annually with respect to its handling of child sex abuse by its employees and agents around the world.

Moreover, the federal government has already instituted various vehicles to address the trafficking of children for sex. The Holy See's activities here do not (usually) involve the movement of children, though. Rather, the problem is the movement of adults dangerous to children. According to www.bishopaccountability.org, 69 priests known to have abused children in the U.S. were shipped here from Ireland. Congress needs to enact criminal laws to punish, penalize, and deter any institution, organization, or country that transports adults into the country who pose such serious menace.

One promising path that I have strenuously advocated for, and the President and Congress needs to consider if it wants to demonstrate its leadership, is amending the RICO laws to reach institutionally orchestrated child sex abuse. Right now, RICO, which was created to capture organized criminal activity, is triggered by financial harm; it needs to be changed so that it is triggered by widespread harm to children as well. And the Catholic Church is not the only institution that requires investigation under such a statute. The Boy Scouts trial occurring in Oregon right now has produced evidence of decades-old "perversion files" that detail knowledge of abusers in close proximity of children. The Holy See is not the only organization that is putting children knowingly or recklessly at risk.

I also have urged the federal government to provide incentives to states to reform their statutes of limitations for child sex abuse so these arbitrary barriers no longer keep child predators in business and victims from pursuing justice in the courtroom when they are adults. It is important to note that child sexual abuse is epidemic; it is estimated that one in four girls and one in five boys are sexually abused and only 10 percent of victims ever go to authorities. It is also fact that survivors typically need decades to come forward and the legal system offers the only viable means of identifying child predators who are operating under the radar against our children.

Lengthening, or even eliminating, statutes of limitation (SOLs) is a costless way for the states to do so, while balancing the scales of justice for victims. States like Alaska, Maine, and Delaware simply eliminated SOLs. In California, such reformation yielded the identities of over 300 previously secret child predators. And right now, similar bills are pending in Arizona, Connecticut, New York, and Wisconsin.

The United States should also reconsider its failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child so that it can exercise moral and meaningful authority on these issues in the global sphere. The vast majority of the world's countries have already ratified the Convention - even the Holy See signed on - but America has been held hostage by Republicans intent on permitting parents to physically punish their children.

Even without the U.S. on board, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child must address the worldwide human rights abuses by and within the Roman Catholic organization being documented on a daily basis at this point. This, the Holy See's mishandling of child predator employees and agents, is a topic that should be added to its next meeting's agenda in Geneva in late May.

Since the massive cover-up of the Church's secret handling of child sexual abuse by its priests first broke in 2002, thousands of victims here in the U.S. - and millions who are rightfully and sufficiently outraged - have demanded accountability. So far, our government has acted as though their suffering has nothing to do with its obligations. Only when leaders of our country, not to mention those around the world, stand up for the victims will justice ever be done. Silence and inaction means nothing less than another act of abuse being perpetrated upon them.

Washington's Crossing, PA resident Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University and the author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children" (Cambridge 2008). She can be reached at hamilton02@aol.com.