Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain has not exercised his authority to make public the files in his possession. As a result, it’s impossible to even begin to understand, the archdiocese’s responsibility for the sexual abuse of hundreds of children suffered at its parishes.
THE Catholic Church across America has been mired in scandal for nearly 20 years — since reports of widespread abuse of children by its priests first surfaced. The Seattle Archdiocese is no different.
As an attorney, I have represented hundreds of Catholics who were abused by priests, brothers and lay employees in Seattle and across Washington. My clients have been men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from both stable and troubled families. These survivors of abuse have a unique and important perspective on the actions of the Seattle Archdiocese with regard to how it handles complaints of abuse, and its claims of apology and accountability.
On Jan. 15, the Archdiocese released the names of 77 individuals who it deemed had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Almost immediately, survivors of abuse and their advocates began to call on the Seattle Archdiocese to release all of its files pertaining to the 77 abusive priests, nuns and clerics it identified.
The Archdiocese of Seattle maintains files and a “secret archive” regarding abusive priests in its ranks, including many of the 77 individuals it recently identified. Under canon law, which governs the Catholic Church, every bishop and archbishop is required to keep “secret files” that contain information regarding misconduct by his priests. The secret files include information regarding priests who are accused of sexually abusing children, including internal correspondence that often sheds light on how the church allowed the abuse to happen.
Each bishop and archbishop has the authority to make his secret files public. A number have exercised that authority and released the files regarding priests credibly accused of sexually abusing children, including the archbishop of Chicago, who oversees the third largest archdiocese in the United States.
As of today, however, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain has not exercised his authority to make public the files in his possession. As a result, it is impossible to understand, or even begin to understand, the Seattle Archdiocese’s direct responsibility for the sexual abuse of hundreds of children suffered at its parishes throughout Western Washington.
The Seattle archbishops were ultimately responsible for supervising these priests and other religious individuals, and, more importantly, for protecting the Catholic children who were entrusted in their care. Abuse survivors, their families and our community deserve to know what the archdiocese knew about each of these individuals, when it knew it and how it responded — if it responded at all.
In a number of cases, the archdiocese received a report of child abuse and simply moved the priest to another parish — often in a new city — without any warning to potential victims or their families. These actions must be made public if the archdiocese genuinely wants to accomplish “transparency and accountability,” as it claims.
If the archdiocese is willing to publicly identify 77 individuals who it has judged “credibly accused” of child abuse, then the archdiocese should release its files so the public can judge for itself whether the archdiocese has been “credibly accused” of allowing those 77 individuals to abuse children.
The accountability that would result from making the archdiocese’s “secret files” public would not only result in transparency and accountability, but would provide greater protection for children by shedding light on the institutional failures that allowed many of these individuals to operate in plain sight.
Release of the files would also give abuse survivors and their families needed healing by providing answers to questions not just about their abusers, but about whether the church played any role in allowing them to be abused. Such transparency would demonstrate once and for all that the Catholic Church, or at least the Seattle Archdiocese, is taking full responsibility for its actions.
Only when the church takes full ownership, in action and word, can the hundreds of victims across Western Washington and the thousands across the United States take steps toward healing and reconciliation with their church. And only then will the Catholic Church be able to move forward.