Article from The Columbus Dispatch.
Fifteen years after an investigation exposed widespread child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, critics say little has changed.
The Columbus Diocese, however, says it put measures in place to prevent abuse and believes they’ve made a difference.
Though the investigation done by the Spotlight investigative reporting team at The Boston Globe and published in 2002 surely raised awareness about clergy sexual abuse, it didn’t seem to reverberate in Columbus as it did in other dioceses, even others in Ohio.
In Cincinnati, attorney Konrad Kircher heard from about 100 victims in the three years after the investigation and estimates that he’s talked to 300 overall in the past 15 years.
“Everything blew up,” said Kircher, now partner at Rittgers and Rittgers in Lebanon in southwestern Ohio. “The Spotlight articles … caused ripples throughout the nation.”
Kircher was among attorneys in the state who took on the cases, as well as one in Toledo and another in Cleveland. He said there wasn’t another attorney at the time taking cases in Columbus, which could be why there weren’t as many cases filed here.
In the past several years, 20 priests have been accused in the Columbus diocese and 15 accusations were found to be credible, according to The Dispatch archives. Many of the accused priests have been removed from the priesthood.
Child sexual abuse overall is most often perpetrated by people known to the child but not a relative, such as family friends, authority figures, neighbors, child-care providers or clergy members. Priest sexual abuse is a fraction of all child sexual abuse. Each year, about one in 12 children are sexually abused, according to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Spotlight investigation prompted other investigations internationally, and in 2014, the Vatican announced that it had defrocked 848 priests for sexual abuse of children and levied lesser punishment on 2,572 others. More than 3,400 cases of abuse have been reported to the Vatican since 2004.
“To say this problem is over is just not accurate,” said Barbara Dorris, managing director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy organization based in St. Louis.
Though victims and experts haven’t seen a difference in the past 15 years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus points to many measures it has put in place to protect children and believes they have made a difference.
“It’s been several years since we had a new case,” said Deacon Thomas Berg, diocesan chancellor.
Dispatch records show that moves were made by the diocese as recently as March 2016, when the Rev. Ronald Atwood was defrocked after accusations that he had abused a minor in the 1970s.
The diocese pledges transparency when it comes to sexual abuse of children and said that all information received, even that which is not verifiable, will be shared with authorities, according to an email from diocesan spokesman George Jones.
Jones released numbers of allegations the diocese has received since 2012. There were no new “credible” reports from 2014 to the present, according to the diocese. There were two new credible allegations in 2013 and one in 2012. The allegations against Atwood were made in 2013.
The diocese put many preventative measures in place when they were laid out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops following the Globe’s investigation in 2002, and some were in place before that, Berg said.
Included in the measures is a class to raise awareness of child sexual abuse, called Protecting God’s Children, which every volunteer, staff and clergy member must take before interacting with children. Almost 60,000 volunteers have completed the program since it started, Berg said.
Other measures include background checks before anyone interacts with children; annual audits of parish safety; a reporting system for victims; a victim’s assistance coordinator; making allegations public; a review board to investigate credible reports and recommend action to the bishop; and a policy on adults rarely being allowed to be alone with children.
“The abuse of minors is a society-wide problem, and the Catholic church took this on wholeheartedly and did not just look at it through the lens of clergy but through the lens of everybody who has contact with minors,” Berg said.
Carol Zamonski isn’t convinced.
“What we see in actuality — other than formulaic response and setting up committees that don’t do much — is business as usual on the part of the Catholic church,” said Zamonski, a survivor of priest sexual abuse as a child who has become local coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The North Side resident frequently speaks to other victims and said there are as many as 60 locally. She said she knows of thousands of survivors and has talked to hundreds.
“The culture in the Catholic church of sexual secrecy goes back years and years,” she said. “That culture has just sort of continued.”
In addition to the culture of secrecy, there may be other barriers preventing victims from coming forward, she said.
“I think they’ve been very discouraged by the legal climate here,” Zamonski said, referring to a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering rewards that victims can receive in Ohio. “This cap, it has been keeping survivors from coming forward.”
The cap not only keeps survivors from coming forward, but it keeps attorneys from taking their cases if they do.
John Fitch, attorney with the Fitch Law Firm on the North Side, said he’s turned people down when they’ve come to him with sex-abuse cases.
“This is major litigation, in many instances,” said Fitch, who has filed a few cases. “It is my judgment it’s just no longer feasible to represent victims of sex abuse in Ohio.”
Despite the increase in awareness since the Spotlight investigation, Fitch said, “There is still a tremendous amount of sexual abuse and there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of education.”
“In my view, Ohio law is going backward.”
Another barrier to reporting could be faulty memories of abuse.
Zamonski said she blocked out memories of her childhood abuse for years, finally remembering in a series of flashbacks and dreams when she was 30. It was a devastating experience, she said, and she struggled with depression as a result.
Diane Lampkins, a clinical manager at the Center for Family Safety and Healing, a nonprofit agency on the South Side and affiliate of Nationwide Children’s Hospital that is focused on treating and preventing child abuse and other family violence, has dealt with all manner of child sexual abuse. She said the number of cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors haven’t changed since 2002.
“The church, not just Catholic, has a different culture,” Lampkins said. “They’re pretty inclusive and protective of members. They take a whole different stance of, they’re going to handle it in the church.”
Many times, reports of clergy sexual abuse won’t get to the center, as the churches try to handle the cases themselves, Lampkins said. She said victims and their families often end up coming to her after they get frustrated with the way the church handled their cases.
“They’re not reporting as we would like to see them report,” she said of the churches.
Victims will often go first to churches to report abuse because they feel “that’s a place you expect to get help,” Lampkins said.
The best thing to do is to report to authorities, or the center, which combines several services and only has victims tell their stories once.
The center, Franklin County Children Services and the Columbus Police Division don’t keep records specifically on clergy abuse.
Some have hope that the response by churches will improve.
Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, is an organization that works to train all Christian churches and seminarians on the correct response to abuse and to develop policies.
The amount of churches and faith communities approaching GRACE, founded in 2003, has increased in the past five years, said Boz Tchividjian, executive director and founder of GRACE.
“I’m encouraged by that, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said. “There are plenty of churches and faith communities where nothing’s changed.”
Zamonksi wants to see more than policies.
“What we really want to see is them eliminate priests who are abusing, and (see them) defrocking and demoting bishops who know about it and don’t do anything,” she said.
If you or someone you care about was sexually abused and you would like advice from an attorney about the rights and options for victims of child sexual abuse, please contact Crew Janci LLP today for a free, confidential consultation at 1-888-407-0224 or by using our private online form. We will treat you with discretion and respect.