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The Belgians Make Washington Look Bad

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Finally, some sanity, rational thought, and courage has come to the issue of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy in this country.

The U.S. Solicitor General and the State Department, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urged the Supreme Court to vacate a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that permitted a single victim to sue the Holy See for abuse by Fr. Andrew Ronan. The priest admitted repeatedly to victimizing children in Ireland, Chicago, and then Portland. Nevertheless, the legal strategy employed by our government was to grossly distort Oregon law so as to favor the Vatican.

But last week, the Supreme Court, with six Catholics on the bench, took the high road and rejected the Solicitor General's and the State Department's politicization of the case and denied the Holy See's petition. As a result, John V. Doe will be permitted to pursue his case, first through discovery and then at trial. That is a testimony to the rule of law.

If our appointed or elected representatives think that they are defending religious liberty by giving the Vatican a pass, they need to look at history. In fact, our forefathers understood the potential for corruption in churches. They distinguished licentiousness from liberty. Illegal sexual behavior was never intended to be protected under religious liberty guarantees, and those who use the First Amendment in these cases are besmirching it.

In this regard, Europe appears to be light years ahead. Indeed, with all the recent global revelations of child sexual abuse by Church clergy, various governments are now faced with the question: who weighs more in the balance -- the Roman Catholic hierarchy or victims of this abuse? Belgian authorities made their choice last week when, armed with warrants, they searched the residences of Bishops, files of the Church's commission formed to investigate child sex abuse, and even a crypt for evidence. In so doing, they set a standard for the world.

Yet, in our country, standing up to the Vatican hierarchy is almost an anomaly. One brave prosecutor in the United States who did the right thing, with much less drama than in Belgium, was Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who instituted grand jury proceedings investigating the Archdiocese in that city when she learned what the Catholic hierarchy had done to cover-up massive abuses. Her efforts produced a prodigious and impressive document that draws on the sort of files obtained by the Belgian authorities. And while the individual Belgian cases will have their own sordid and tragic details, there is little doubt that they will learn what the Philadelphia Grand Jury did:

We saw what must have been crystal-clear as well to Cardinals Krol and Bevilacqua and their aides: that many, many priests each have had many, many victims, often spanning decades... [And that] the Archdiocese's primary goal in dealing with these cases was to reduce the risk of 'scandal' to the Church."

Our federal elected and appointed officials, unfortunately, have chosen to favor the Church. Despite the thousands of abused children across the country, the Philadelphia Report, and the massive legal settlements that evidence the criminal and grossly immoral behavior perpetrated by priests, bishops and others in the Church, no Senator and no Representative has publicly condemned them for their severe endangerment of children in this country. Nor has any President, Republican or Democrat, had the moral compass to call the Church and its hierarchy publicly to account for destroying thousands of lives and families.

That's as shameful as the actual acts of abuse. As the leader in the free world for human rights enforcement, the U.S. is uniquely positioned to take definitive measures. One promising path that the President and Congress should consider to demonstrate its leadership is amending the RICO laws to reach institutionally orchestrated child sex abuse. RICO was created to capture organized criminal activity, and is triggered by financial harm. It needs to be changed to include widespread harm to children. Washington has spent tremendous energy focusing on trafficking in children. The national and international movement of abusive adults deserves attention as well.

Equally importantly, the federal government, which already requires states to have laws that mandate child abuse reporting in order to obtain Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act funding, can use this leverage to also encourage states to lengthen or eliminate 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 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.

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 across the U.S. -- and millions who are rightfully and sufficiently outraged -- have demanded accountability. This is the year that our federal government needs to stand up for child abuse victims to see that they have the opportunity for justice. After all the news now unfolding in the U.S. and around the world on this topic, inaction is simply not an option.

Marci Hamilton, the Paul Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University, is a church/state scholar and the lead appellate litigator representing John V. Doe against the Holy See. Hamilton02@aol.com