What is the legal status of catholic priests in the United States?
March 27, 2010 7:44 PM   Subscribe

With all the discussions around catholic priest abusing children and the police considering any report of such abuse as not part of their jurisdiction, I was wondering what the legal status of a catholic priest in the United States would be?

I'm assuming that American priests do carry an American passport and, as such, are US citizens? But do they also have citizenship from the Vatican? And if so, are they immune to prosecutions from crimes like the abuse crimes that have been reported in the news? Are there any tricky jurisdictional issues in dealing with priests breaking the law?

And, if that's the case, is that the issue only with catholicism or is the same true of every religion?
posted by TNLNYC to Law & Government (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a Catholic, the whole thing disturbs me, and I wonder the same things as you. Generally these are American priests, born here and practicing here. I can't understand why the police aren't involved, other than the allegations are usually old, and maybe the statues ran out? I really don't know.

The whole thing is just confounding and unintelligible to me. I mean really, why weren't police called? Why shouldn't higher ups be prosecuted for hiding things? My only guess is that there are statutes of limitations involved.
posted by sanka at 7:56 PM on March 27, 2010

I think it's probably a staute of limitations issue. Priests don't have any special legal protection in the US, nor do any clergy. Clergy are prosecuted for things all the time.
posted by ishotjr at 7:57 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you are thinking of diplomatic immunity, which covers diplomats and not priests. Putting that aside, there is no special immunity that goes with foreign citizenship. Foreign citizens that commit crimes in the US get prosecuted and jailed (and executed) in the US. [Example.]

I don't know whether Catholic priests can or do get secondary citizenship from the Vatican (are there citizens of the Vatican?), but, in any event, I don't think it matters to your question because of the above.
posted by Mid at 7:57 PM on March 27, 2010

They have no special protections. Former priest sentenced to 20 years in prison. Yesterday.
posted by desjardins at 8:01 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

and the police considering any report of such abuse as not part of their jurisdiction,

Could you point to an example of the sort of thing you're talking about? Like ishotjr I think you may be referring to the 20 year old cases that can no longer be prosecuted, but I'm not sure.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:02 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the U.S., Catholic priests aren't in a separate category from anyone else. Some of them are U.S. citizens, and some are immigrants who are citizens of other countries. Some immigrant priests decide to become American citizens, and some don't. They don't have any special rights or privileges.

Part of the reason that priests weren't prosecuted for sexual abuse is that most abusers weren't prosecuted in the past. That's probably particularly true of abusers who had a lot of status, which was true of Catholic priests within their own communities.
posted by craichead at 8:06 PM on March 27, 2010

I think you're slightly confusing things here. The recent reports document a long period in which priests were sent to other localities or even to different countries after allegations of abuse, and it's that which created jurisdictional issues for local law enforcement. For instance, a priest in the US might have been relocated there from Ireland to "start afresh" -- which in many cases meant beginning a new cycle of abuse -- but police had no power to investigate any reports of what might have happened in Ireland to lead to that relocation. There were also issues surrounding the statue of limitations on abuse cases stretching back decades, exacerbated in some cases by making the abuse sufferers swear to secrecy.

What's becoming clear from things like the Ryan report in Ireland is that there was an institutional culture in many countries' church hierarchies of offloading "problem" priests into another ecclesiastical (and civil) jurisdiction instead of reporting abuse to the authorities.

Also, child abuse statutes have much greater jurisdictional scope these days, primarily to address "sex tourism" in countries with child prostitution, meaning that people who travel abroad to have sex with children can often be prosecuted in their home countries, and that jurisdictional reach, while difficult to enforce, has encouraged countries once considered havens for child sex tourism to step up their own enforcement.
posted by holgate at 8:08 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The reason I got to wonder was the following sentence in today's New York Times story:
They went to the police departments in Milwaukee, where they were told it was not the correct jurisdiction.
From the story, it appears that it was the correct jurisdiction but I may be wrong.

The Ryan report does indeed also show that the problem was widespread in Europe and I'm wondering if the US took the same "hands-off" approach or whether there is some kind of actual legal framework for that laissez-faire attitude.

So, if I understand this well, the reason most prosecution is not happening is because the statute of limitation on most of those crimes has expired?
posted by TNLNYC at 8:24 PM on March 27, 2010

Could you point to an example where police have decided not to investigate current claims of abuse? There's no reason why police wouldn't have jurisdiction over priests. I think you're misunderstanding the issue.

The problem is that historically, victims often reported their abuse to the Church, not to the police. This may have been because they remained loyal to the church as an institution, or because they feared the potential embarrassment of a public court case.

Priests and church officials investigated complaints, but did not tell police what they knew. Often priests were simply moved on to another parish, only to start abusing again. The present-day scandal is not just that child abuse took place, but that high-ranking Church officials acted deliberately to stop the authorities from finding out about it.
posted by embrangled at 8:29 PM on March 27, 2010

Reading the statute of limitations on Child Sexual Assault is all over the map by state.

Like anywhere from 10 years from the event, 10 years from the person reaching 18 years of age, the person being 35 years old, etc. There are a lot of different regulations. It's hard to decode based on state, time, age, etc. I don;t even know where to start with it.
posted by sanka at 8:30 PM on March 27, 2010

According to Wikipedia, there were only 557 people in the world with Vatican citizenship in 2005, of whom a bit more than half were part of the Vatican's diplomatic service. Most or all of those people in the diplomatic service would, under the Vienna Convention, have diplomatic immunity in countries other than the Vatican, but there's probably not more than a handful of them in any country.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:30 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The full quote is:
They went to the police departments in Milwaukee, where they were told it was not the correct jurisdiction, and in St. Francis, where the school was located, Mr. Conway said.
My interpretation of the sentence is that St. Francis may have been the correct jurisdiction.
posted by zamboni at 8:32 PM on March 27, 2010

So, if I understand this well, the reason most prosecution is not happening is because the statute of limitation on most of those crimes has expired?
That's mostly the reason it's not happening now. The reasons that it didn't happen at the time are much more complicated. The first thing to realize is that physical and sexual abuse were absolutely endemic at both secular and religious institutions for disabled people, and abusers were almost never prosecuted. The second thing to realize is that sexual abuse, maybe especially of boys, was rarely prosecuted in general, because it was so disturbing that it was easier to deny it than to confront it. And finally, Catholic priests were socially powerful people, backed up by a socially powerful institution which decided to protect them.

There isn't any legal reason that pedophile priests couldn't have been prosecuted in America in the '50s, '60s and '70s. There were very strong social and cultural factors that prevented them from being prosecuted.
posted by craichead at 8:36 PM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Note also that the "wrong jurisdiction" comment is attributed to a meeting that took place in the 1970s. This may just be indicative of people not taking this sort of thing seriously back then -- i.e., it wasn't really a "jurisdictional" problem in some legal sense, it was just that whoever said that didn't want to get involved.
posted by Mid at 8:45 PM on March 27, 2010

Well, there is the complication of confessional confidentiality which has some legal status, though it's a very complicated issue. Bottom line, regardless of laws, the RCC hierarchy was frequently given legal leeway which would not be afforded a mere mortal - this was obviously more prevalent in locations where the power of the church was greater (Catholic areas).
posted by VikingSword at 8:52 PM on March 27, 2010

I agree with Mid; St. Francis is in Milwaukee County and would have been under the jurisdiction of the District Attorney's office, so for whatever reason they declined to pursue the case, it was not on jurisdictional grounds.

While I don't want to cast aspersions on my hometown, Milwaukee is a very heavily Catholic city and it does not surprise me at all that the case would have been referred back to the Archdiocese, especially back in the 1970s. It may have been handled differently in a less Catholic city; we can never know. (on preview, what VikingSword says)
posted by desjardins at 8:54 PM on March 27, 2010

This may just be indicative of people not taking this sort of thing seriously back then -- i.e., it wasn't really a "jurisdictional" problem in some legal sense, it was just that whoever said that didn't want to get involved.

The Irish- or Polish-American cop might be a stereotype, but police departments in large cities with large Catholic populations tended to be even more Catholic than the city. And in some cases, still are. And yes, "out of sight, out of mind" was the operating rule for all sorts of uncomfortable institutional behaviour.
posted by holgate at 9:29 PM on March 27, 2010

There isn't any legal reason that pedophile priests couldn't have been prosecuted in America in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

Actually, the rape laws were often written only for men raping women. Wisconsin's statutory rape law did not become gender neutral until 1976 [pdf]. Additionally, until the 1970s rape (and molestation) were not seen as violations of a person but immoral acts. These and other laws were not subsequently gathered into a body of statutes under the rubric Crimes Against Children until 1988.

Looking back today, it is difficult to see that there was a time when attitudes were different. Having lived through it, there was a striking shift in which the rights of children became paramount, itself following a difficult transition to honoring the rights of women. In 1970, it would not have been unusual for a man whose wife was raped to feel shamed, for having allowed her into the situation in the first place (say, at the bus stop because he wasn't able to make enough money to keep her from having a second job).

I believe it is very likely that a policeman hearing a report of a priest molesting a boy, in that day and age, would have considered the boy sexually immoral for tempting the priest, much the way society still hasn't completely shaken off the idea that women who are raped deserve it for the way they dressed or acted.

Really. I mean it. You can't transport modern attitudes back over this half-century and assume that the only reason people didn't act the same was obscure legalities. They literally did not see the crime the way we do today.
posted by dhartung at 10:05 PM on March 27, 2010

You also can't underestimate the culture of denial. Priests could do absolutely no wrong in the eyes of my grandparents. It was inconceivable. I think a priest could have killed a man in cold blood in front of my grandmother and she would have believed it must have been somehow justified.
posted by desjardins at 10:35 PM on March 27, 2010

Confessional confidentiality is probably the central issue here, called the Confessional Privilege in the United States. State laws very but, in general, protect some communications between a clergy member and an individual from legal scrutiny. In the Catholic context, this is referred to as the "seal of the confessional": in Roman Catholic doctrine, confessors are obligated to never disclose what they hear while the person speaking with them believes they are confessing. In the sexual abuse case, this most often applies when a suspect clergyman discloses the abuse to his bishop: if the bishop had any reason to believe the clergyman thought he was confessing under the seal, he cannot reveal it (under Catholic doctrine) under penalty of an eternity in Hell. You can, of course, see why the seal is essential to the continued viability of confession in the first place: without it, a parishioner would have no ability to verify that an anonymous priest wouldn't spread their sins all over town.

The seal doesn't, obviously, absolve all moral or legal culpability. Commonly understood doctrine suggests confessors must require those whose sin violates the law to turn themselves in as a condition of absolution: you cannot forgive a murderer if they refuse to face legal penalties for their crime. The seal also shouldn't prevent the bishop from reassigning a priest to a position where he would have no contact with children, and the widespread availability of these positions in monasteries and such suggests real malfeasance on the part of the bishops in question, for all the cultural reasons alluded to upthread.

The highest profile cleric to testify in US sex abuse cases has been Roger Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles. He has testified more often than any other bishop, but has also come under a lot of criticism from victim's rights groups for seeming inconsistencies in his testimony and his attempts to block the release of diocesan documents. I looked, and I can't really find a good breakdown of what he's testified to and what he hasn't, but a cursory glance suggests he has at least some willingness to testify to internal deliberations while not discussing conversations he's had with the defendants in question. Administrators around him, who likely had less personal contact with the defendants, have been more open on the witness stand. Take from that what you will.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 2:24 PM on March 28, 2010

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