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Diane Dimond: A Come-to-Jesus Moment for the U.S. Catholic Church

Pope Francis has called for silence and prayer from those who criticize the Catholic Church's attempts to root out and punish priests who are committing sexual abuse. 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 United States, The Boston Globe stunned the nation with its 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the systemic coverup of child sexual exploitation within the Boston diocese. 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 Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley was launching an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against the Catholic Church in his state. In short order, the attorney general in New Mexico, Hector Balderas, followed suit. Both AGs officially requested that all dioceses voluntarily produce church documents for review of possible cases of sex crimes by priests. Church officials in both states promised to cooperate.

Note: At press time, the office of the attorney general of New York announced that it has subpoenaed documents from all seven Catholic dioceses and the archdiocese. The AG also has established a dedicated hotline for victims or those with pertinent information. Attorneys general in New Jersey, Illinois and Nebraska also have jumped on the bandwagon.

The news followed a shocking grand jury report from Pennsylvania that revealed the church had covered up the sexual abuse of 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 not prompted by personal political goals.

In New Mexico, Attorney General Balderas is expected to win re-election in November, and he's reported to have his eye on the governor's office. But he didn't immediately act after the Pennsylvania cases made national news, nor after the pope himself was implicated in covering up the alleged sex crimes of a top U.S. cardinal. Balderas waited until the state's largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, wrote an editorial challenging him to act in the mostly Catholic state.

In Missouri, Attorney General Hawley, a Republican, is locked in a neck-and-neck race for a U.S. Senate seat against Democratic 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 is it an honest attempt at mining the corrupt Catholic landscape that has allowed for sexual abuse of so many of the faithful?

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 shuffled offending priests from parish to parish or off 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 coverup of these horrendous crimes against children also should be punished. A collar and a 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 any different for those 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 — who deserve justice. Imagine if only a small percentage of Catholics were to rise up and urge their local officials to follow in the path of Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois and Nebraska and launch official investigations.

It is, quite literally, a come-to-Jesus moment, not only for the pope in Rome but also 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, and local and state police departments. What the Vatican has not done you must do.

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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