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Come-to-Jesus moment for the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has called for silence and prayer from those who criticize the Catholic Church’s attempts to root out and punish sex-abusing priests. But it is clear the time for silence has long passed.

Priests who prey on children are criminals, not souls to be saved for the sake of an institution.

Here in the U.S., the Boston Globe stunned the nation with its Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the systemic cover-up of child sexual exploitation within the Boston diocese back in 2003. Today we are still talking about trying to find justice for victims of priestly sex crimes.

That’s why I was cheered by a report this week that the Missouri Attorney General, Jeff Hawley, was launching an investigation into allegations of sex abuse against the Catholic Church in his state. In short order, the Attorney General in New Mexico, Hector Balderas, followed suit. Both AGs are officially requesting all dioceses to voluntarily produce church documents for review of possible cases of sex crimes by priests. Church officials in both states promised to cooperate.

And at press time the office of the Attorney General of New York announced it has subpoenaed documents from all seven Catholic dioceses and the archdiocese. The AG has also established a dedicated hot line for victims or those with pertinent information. In addition, AGs in Illinois and Nebraska are also saying they will investigate.

The news followed a shocking grand jury report from Pennsylvania that revealed the church had covered up the sexual abuse by more than 300 priests who defiled more than 1,000 children over a span of 70 years. The report concluded there were likely thousands more victims whose records were lost or who decided to keep their terrible secret out of shame or fear.

Let’s just hope these newly launched investigations – and those anticipated to be announced in other states – are serious, long-term probes dedicated to finding the truth and were not prompted by personal politics.

In Missouri, Attorney General Hawley, a Republican, is locked in a neck-and-neck race for a U.S. Senate seat against Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill. And under Missouri law, he only has the authority to investigate. He does not have subpoena or prosecutorial power. So, is his a grandstanding move to attract tough-on-crime voters or an honest attempt at mining the corrupt Catholic landscape that has allowed sexual abuse of so many of the faithful?

In New Mexico, AG Balderas is running for re-election in November, and he’s reported to have his eye on the governor’s office. After the Pennsylvania cases made national news and after the Pope himself was implicated in covering up the alleged sex crimes of a top U.S. cardinal, the Albuquerque Journal wrote an editorial challenging him to act in the very Catholic state, and Balderas did.

We’ve all heard about the idea of “the separation of church and state,” which was first mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. It was designed to keep the state out of church business and vice versa. But when church business becomes all about protecting criminal clergy, the state must step in.

The scandal in the Catholic Church is worldwide, and this is a watershed moment. What happened inside sacred spaces can no longer be ignored or waved off as something that happened long ago.

The massive amount of media coverage has surely put priests across the globe on their best behavior, but that does not mean they should be exempt from punishment for past crimes or that their victims don’t deserve justice. And for those in the church hierarchy who engaged in shuffling offending priests from parish to parish or to brief stays at Catholic retreats so they could pray and repent? They are equally guilty, perhaps even more so, as they allowed their fellow clergy to remain free to prey on the unsuspecting, the devoted. Whoever engaged in the cover-up of these horrendous crimes against children should also be punished. A collar and crucifix cannot erase the truth.

Any person who knows about or even suspects the sexual abuse of a child and does nothing is culpable. Those who take steps to protect the abuser are complicit. Why should it be different in the church?

Some 70.4 million Americans identify as Catholic. It is the largest religious denomination in the United States. As a group it is a potentially powerful political force that could be corralled to demand accountability for the countless victims – both alive and gone now – who deserve justice. Imagine if only a small percentage of Catholics rose up to urge their local officials to follow in the path of Pennsylvania, New Mexico and these other states to launch official investigations?

It is, quite literally, a Come-to-Jesus moment not only for the Pope in Rome but for Catholics everywhere.

The laws are different in every state, but this is a call to all those who hold the power to investigate and prosecute – attorneys general, district attorneys, local and state police departments. What the Vatican has not done, you must do.

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