(RNS) – More than four decades after claims of sexual abuse against a Catholic priest made national headlines, sparking accusations, lawsuits, a series of newspaper investigations and billions of dollars in settlements , the US Department of Justice is investigating a religious group’s handling of sex crimes by clergy and church personnel.
This time, the Southern Baptist Convention is under investigation, according to a statement released Friday, Aug. 12, by leaders of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
News of the investigation came months after the publication of a report by investigative firm Guidepost Solutions which found that SBC executives had abused survivors of abuse and mishandled abuse complaints for decades. .
The Nashville-based SBC executive committee acknowledged receiving a subpoena from the Justice Department. Leaders of Southern Baptist seminaries, mission groups, the Executive Committee and other entities have pledged full cooperation.
Texas pastor Bart Barber, the newly elected president of the SBC, also signed the statement. Barber also recently appointed a task force to implement new reforms aimed at combating abuse.
The question is: why the SBC, and why now?
“If I was still in law enforcement, I would want to carefully review the report myself and see if there is anything of potential value to prosecutors in terms of criminally prosecuting an offender, or if there is something law enforcement must do to prevent a crime,” said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent who served as executive director of the Conference of Children’s Office of Child Welfare. United States Catholic bishops.
McChesney, now a consultant, said federal law enforcement officials often investigate sex trafficking, child pornography and crimes against children on the Internet. It is less common for them to investigate sexual abuse, which is often handled by local or state officials. In 2011, a Texas jury sentenced Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to life in prison for abuse after Jeffs spent years on the most wanted list. from the FBI as a fugitive.
The DOJ generally only becomes involved when a federal crime may have occurred, often when victims are transported across state lines as part of an unlawful act.
While it has been rare for the FBI or other department investigators to examine the activities of religious groups, the DOJ is currently investigating the Archdiocese of New Orleans to determine whether abusive Catholic priests took children through state lines, the Associated Press reported in June.
“The problem has always been figuring out what the federal crime is,” Peter G. Strasser, the former U.S. attorney in New Orleans, told AP earlier this year. Strasser, according to AP, “declined to press charges in 2018 after the archdiocese released a list of 57 ‘credibly accused’ clergy.”
But the DOJ may have decided to become more proactive in the wake of the USA Gymnastics scandal involving Dr. Larry Nassar, a former team doctor, who was eventually arrested and sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for abused over 150 women and girls. . In 2021, a Justice Department report found that the FBI had “mishandled allegations of sexual abuse of athletes” by Nassar.
“The report noted that according to documents filed in civil court, approximately 70 women and girls were victims of Nassar between the time the FBI was first informed of the allegations and the time Michigan officials reported it. arrested based on separate information,” the Washington Post said. reported last year.
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McChesney said the #MeToo movement has also made sexual assault and domestic violence investigations a higher priority than in the past. Federal law enforcement is in a different place than it was in the early 2000s, she noted, when the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix and other media revealed the extent of sexual abuse in the US. Catholic Church of Massachusetts.
At the time, the FBI was focused on responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And federal officials rarely investigated crimes related to the Mann Act, which criminalized sex trafficking across state lines, McChesney said.
“Federal law enforcement was not focused on anything other than terrorism at that time,” she said. “While the abuse cases weren’t ignored, they weren’t really on the radar until the last decade.”
She also said the statute of limitations often made it difficult to pursue sexual abuse or file civil lawsuits.
“The whole landscape has changed over the past two decades,” she said, pointing to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s investigation that uncovered more than 300 cases of clergy sex abuse in parishes. Catholics in the state over the past 70 years.
When federal investigators target churches or religious figures, McChesney said, other issues, such as fraud or discrimination, have normally been implicated.
In 2016, the Justice Department secured religious discrimination convictions against local government officials in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, who had ties to the FLDS. These leaders have been accused of discriminating against non-FLDS residents. A year later, FLDS church leader Lyle Jeffs was convicted after a federal indictment of food stamp fraud.
McChesney said investigating church leaders for a cover-up is more difficult than investigating specific crimes.
“You have to be able to prove there was an intent to protect an attacker,” she said. “Is there evidence anywhere that they were trying to hide or protect an attacker?”
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