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The story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and a question for the state attorney general

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Sept. 14, 2018


"Evil lives in the dark. It hates the light. It hates transparency.”

— Father Ed Witt, St. Issac Jogues Catholic Church



These are stories I hate to write, but also stories I can’t avoid.

They are stories about the church I love, and the dark spot on its soul.

I hope someday to write stories of confession and repentance — and penance, too — on a scale we’ve never seen in the Catholic Church, or beyond.

That’s big-story stuff. Church-changing stuff. Life-altering stuff.

This is just one small story out of many, written in this case by a Catholic who interviewed three other Catholics who just happen to be particularly relevant to the sexual-abuse stain on the Catholic Church and what it means here in South Dakota.

What, perhaps, it should mean, too.

Let’s start with Marty Jackley, a Sturgis native and Pierre resident who is just a few months from the end of his second four-year term as South Dakota attorney general. He’s also the past chairman of the National Association of Attorneys General.

As you can imagine, the subject of sexual abuse and coverups in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is a subject of widespread discussion among state attorneys general and the association that represents them across the nation.

The focus, of course, is on the report released last month by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on a grand jury investigation into sexual abuse and coverups involving six dioceses in the state going back 70 years. The investigation determined that more than 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children during that time.

Most of those cases were decades ago. Much has been done in the Catholic Church and in society as a whole to make things safer for children and other vulnerable people. It’s not the church it was in 1940 or 1950 or 1960 or 1979. It’s not the nation it was, either.

But the things that happened, the things that were allowed to happen and the things that were covered up — in some instances in a veil of secrecy that endured far beyond the crimes themselves — were mind-numbing.

The numbers in the Pennsylvania report, and the many credible or proven cases against priests who are either dead or gone from priesthood, are staggering. It is inspiring other state attorneys general to start or consider starting investigations or inquiries of their own. They include Nebraska, where Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson is asking the archbishop and two bishops at the three Catholic diocese in the state to produce records of sexual abuse or exploitation claims going back 40 years.

Which seemed like a fair time to ask Jackley and the two candidates for his job — Democrat Randy Seiler and Republican Jason Ravnsborg — whether South Dakota should be doing the same. We have, after all, had our horrid cases of abuse here, too. And, like most states, most instances were many years ago.

Which doesn't mean the pain has ended, or even faded, for many victims. Nor does it mean the sordid  behavior of some clerics, or the failures of supervisors to face them, should be ignored. Of course, they shouldn't be. They can't be.

First, Marty Jackley, who says he and other attorneys general are watching what goes on in other states and considering possible options for their own. When asked if he would seek general information from dioceses in South Dakota on past sexual-abuse cases, Jackley says he’s not inclined to take such action without some indication that criminal acts have occurred and been ignored, missed or covered up.

But he doesn’t rule out a general request for records, either.

“I’ve left all options open. I’m waiting to hear from other attorneys general and what they’re doing, in those state’s where they’ve found problems,” Jackley says. “It’s not uncommon for something that happens in one state to affect the way we operate in another state.”

Jackley says he stays in touch with other AGs through the national organization's network.

“That’s part of the conversation we’re having at the national level — is what the appropriate approach is,” Jackley said. “At this point, we’re looking at the existing investigations and what’s being learned there. I’ll be talking to the other AGs and seeing their approach. Typically, law enforcement has to have an allegation to begin an inquiry.”

Jason Ravnsborg (pronounced ROWNDZ-berg) said that if elected, he would take an approach similar to Jackley’s and be more likely to take action based on allegations of abuse. He pointed out that there were such allegations in Nebraska and other states he has read about.

“I would think we need a victim first, or a voluntary admission by the church that they were dismissing someone  for something inappropriate, before opening up an investigation,” Ravnsborg said. “Obviously, once a victim came forward, that’s a different story. Then we’ve have an obligation to look into it.”

That would be true, Ravnsborg said, whether the sexual-abuse allegations involved a church, a school or even in a home.

“Abusing  children is  one of the worst crimes there is,” he said. “With a victim we would definitely investigate. As for before that, I’d be more toward Mr. Jackley.”

Randy Seiler would be more aggressive in his approach. Seiler, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted cases of sexual-abuse against children, said protecting the vulnerable is the overriding concern.

“As a former U.S. attorney and candidate for attorney general, I’m interested in holding perpetrators accountable,” says Seiler. “I’m interested in looking at whether criminal acts have been committed.”

So while being ready to act on any allegation, Seiler said he would also seek a general review of church records on sexual-abuse allegations, looking for indications that sexual abuse has gone unreported and unpunished in the two Catholic dioceses in South Dakota.

Seiler said he would even be interested in seeing the specifics behind civil settlements reached between the church and those who said they were abused.

“The overriding consideration in all of these cases for me as a prosecutor and attorney general candidate is keeping South Dakota children safe. That’s the end game. That’s the goal,” Seiler said. “Are there individuals who may still be preying on children in our state, committing sexual acts with children? I think the state does have a role to play there, in terms of keeping children safe and holding perpetrators responsible for their actions.”

Seiler said he believes the decision on whether to release specifics of confidential civil settlements should rest with the alleged victims, not the Catholic Church. He also said he would consider using a statewide grand jury if that were helpful in an investigation, to make sure all allegations or indications of abuse have been thoroughly examined.

Jackley said he supports more transparency by the church and the idea of strengthening the relationship between the church and state law enforcement to assure children and others are being protected and nothing criminal has been or is being missed.

Asked about a statewide grand jury, Jackley said that would seem to need allegations or evidence of a crime or crimes.

“You can use a grand jury to investigate, but in order to do that there would have to be a level of evidence that has been submitted to the attorney general’s office,” Jackley said. “There has to be an allegation and some supportive level of proof to justify an investigative grand jury or a grand jury for the purpose of probable-cause finding.”

On the idea of examining confidential agreements between the church and those who said they were victimized, Jackley said those are typically sealed by the courts. And courts would have to unseal them, for a reason.

“I’d have to seek court approval or permission to look at the document,” he said. “In order to do that, I’d have to explain why to a judge.”

Probable cause or credible allegations would be the kind of reasons given, Jackley said. That fact that most abuse occurred decades ago complicates the matter.

Seiler said he doesn’t think confidential agreements give anyone “a pass” on being held accountable for criminal acts. He said state statutes of limitations do not apply to first- and second-degree rape. So if there’s evidence of that, criminal cases could still be pursued if alleged perpetrators were alive, Seiler said.

Such things as groping and molestation would come under sexual contact, where there are statutes of limitations — seven years from commission of the offense or the alleged victim reaching age 25, whichever is longer.

“That’s why professional prosecutors at the state’s attorney’s or attorney general’s level should be looking at these agreements, to see whether an act falls outside the statute of limitations, whether a criminal action can be commenced or whether it has been extinguished by a statute of limitations,” Seiler said. “Nobody has immunity from the rule of law. Nobody. I intend to follow it faithfully and honestly wherever it leads and make decisions based on the evidence.”

So what does the church, my church, here in South Dakota have to say about this? I reached out this morning by email to Bishop Robert Gruss of the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’d expect to eventually.

I also called the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, where I spoke to Chancellor Matt Althoff. He said if the attorney general of South Dakota or other law enforcement agencies seek information from the diocese they can expect cooperation.

“It’s not only our policy, it’s our practice. We have a history of cooperating with law enforcement," he said. "That doesn’t apply only to clerics. So in recent times we can point to where we had a lay minister where there were concerns, and we took that information to the local jurisdiction.”

Althoff said he didn’t feel comfortable talking about the outcome of that report, preferring to leave it to the law enforcement agency. But he did say that any information on improper behavior by priests or lay ministers would be shared with authorities.

“If we were aware of something like that, the attorney general would know about it, or local law enforcement would know about it,” Althoff said. “We wouldn’t sit on that kind of information. We would immediately go to law enforcement."

It's a much different process within the church than it was when most abuse was occurring.

"We encourage going to law enforcement if somebody has a concern, rather than going to church officials," Althoff said.

On the idea of allowing the attorney general and other law-enforcement officers to view records on past confidential settlements, Althoff said the diocese would agree to such transparancy, but only if the victims wanted it.

“Anytime there has been a settlement reached and it came with a confidentiality agreement, it was at the request of the victim,” Althoff said. “So consent would have to be received from the victim. We’re bound by that. The victim deserves to have his or her wishes upheld. And if their wish is confidentiality, we’re going to uphold it.”

Seiler agrees that the victims should decide. But if they’re willing, he’s interested in seeing that information.

As I noted above, Seiler, Ravnsborg and Jackley are all Catholics. They all served as altar boys when they were kids — Seiler in Herreid, Ravnsborg at St. John’s Parish in Quimby, Iowa, and Jackley at St. Francis Catholic Church in Sturgis.

“I had a wonderful experience,” Jackley said. “I never witnessed anything inappropriate to me or any other altar boy.”

Seiler and Ravnsborg had similar altar-server experiences. And that’s the story of most altar servers. The vast majority, in fact.

Others however, suffered trauma the likes of which the rest of us can only imagine, at the hands of men whose duty was to guide and protect them. And decades later, those victims are still dealing with the pain.

While the church and all of us in it deal with the stain.