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State needs tools to investigate wide-scale abuse

September 30, 2018

Sexual assault and abuse are crimes so revolting that their innocent victims have borne the stigma: blame the victim, shame the victim, silence the victim, shield the victim’s name from the public. The events of the past weeks have upended those old conventions, awkwardly, painfully, but irrevocably.

The Day recently published articles by staff writer Joe Wojtas, whose reporting over the years has covered sexual abuse charges against Roman Catholic priests in the Norwich Diocese and allegations of sexual misbehavior by a former Stonington first selectman. The Sept. 23 stories were prompted by coverage of local reaction to a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing charges against some 300 priests in that state over many years. One is the story of a New London man who says he was assaulted in Noank by a pastor now deceased. He described the emotional burdens ever since.

Christine Blasey Ford testified openly before the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school 36 years ago. She had told only her husband and therapists in most of that time, but she decided that keeping her secret any longer did not serve the public interest: The person she was accusing could be appointed to the nation’s high court.

As distinct as each case is, there is the common thread that young victims in particular felt they had little to gain by telling.

Charges can be hard to prove after many years. Nonetheless, the release of the Pennsylvania report and ongoing investigations in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other states with large populations of Catholics have spurred calls to hotlines and opened new cases. Those callers, like Ford and women in the #MeToo movement, are breaking the silence.

Connecticut also has many Catholics. The possibility that there are many silent victims must be faced. People need a clearer idea of the scope of clerical sexual abuse of minors in the state’s three Roman Catholic dioceses dating back as far as possible. But Connecticut lacks the legal structure to look for victims as other states are doing.

If the structure of Connecticut’s criminal investigatory systems doesn’t accommodate a large-scale search for abusive priests and the bishops who failed to stop them, the state needs to pass enabling laws. New statutory authority should be given to the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney, empowering that office to issue subpoenas even where a single specific criminal act is not the focus. And if the state’s one-judge grand jury system does not meet the need, the legislative and judicial branches of state goverment should — urgently — come together and propose new practices.

It has never been clearer that perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse must be held accountable and victims should not have to fear reporting the crimes whenever they work up the courage. The 30-year statute of limitations on a sex crime against a minor ends when the victim is 48. People are living longer, and perpetrators should not outlive their unpunished crimes.

A major step in expanding the prosecution of sexually based crimes is education of people at the top. In both church and state, leaders always seem inclined to avoid bad publicity, but it backfires. Senate Judiciary Committee members divided on party grounds in hearing the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh; the majority balked at the normal investigation by the FBI and looked bad on TV. If U.S. Catholic bishops had treated acts by abusive priests for the crimes that they were, a state grand jury would not have had to do it.

Whatever the American bishops do to reform, as they are expected to announce in November, it is the role of law enforcement and the courts to investigate and prosecute crimes, no matter who commits them.

Candidates for legislative and statewide office should be asked: Would you sponsor and vote for a bill creating a special investigatory process to be used in cases of alleged widespread crimes against victims of different perpetrators, at different times and in different places?

How could they say no?

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