Nebraska AG Issues 400 Subpoenas for Church Records

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On February, 26, 2019, Nebraska’s Attorney General served more than 400 subpoenas on Catholic churches, schools, and institutions in the state of Nebraska. The subpoenas requested twenty-two years of records concerning inappropriate conduct with children. Recipients were ordered to deliver the records within three days.

Nebraska has three Catholic dioceses. All three dioceses already provided the AG with four decades of internal investigative reports related to sexual abuse allegations in their dioceses in September, 2018. Those records totaled well over 14,000 pages.

The subpoenas were personally or electronically served on the Catholic institutions by various law enforcement agencies. On at least one occasion I know of, the officer serving the subpoena interrupted a weekday Mass. It was a very unsettling experience for the priest, the parishioners, and, apparently, the officer. Thankfully, the interruption was not the intention of the officer. However, with every Catholic church in the state being served, the likelihood that a Mass would be interrupted should have been anticipated by the AG’s office. You would think that the AG’s office would go to lengths to avoid any possibility that they could be perceived as using tactics more commonly associated with WWII Germany and the Cold War-era Soviets when state authorities interrupted Masses with impunity.

The subpoenas were issued without any forewarning, in spite of the fact that the three dioceses had been in full cooperation with the AG’s office. The recipients were not only directed to call the AG’s investigator if they had any questions about the subpoena, they were forbidden to contact anyone else.

 

The subpoenas contained the following directive from the AG:

You are ordered not to disclose the existence of this subpoena to any person who is not directly involved with the collection and production of the records requested. Any such disclosure could impede an ongoing investigation and thereby interfere with the enforcement of the laws of the State of Nebraska.

There is no legal basis for the AG’s order to keep the existence of the subpoenas secret.

In spite of this unusual warning in the subpoenas, the AG’s office issued the following press release on the same day the subpoenas were served, thereby notifying the world of the existence of the subpoenas and potentially interfering “with the enforcement of the laws of the State of Nebraska”:

Today, the Nebraska Department of Justice, working alongside various law enforcement agencies, issued subpoenas to over 400 Catholic churches and institutions across Nebraska. The subpoenas request all records or information related to any child sexual assault or abuse that has occurred by those employed or associated with each church or institution, whether previously reported or not. The Nebraska Department of Justice has appreciated the voluntary cooperation demonstrated by the churches. However, the Department believes that subpoenas are necessary in order to ensure all reports of impropriety have been submitted to the appropriate authorities. It is our goal that all reports of abuse are subject to complete law enforcement review and investigation as warranted.

The subpoenas actually state that the churches, schools, and other institutions are required to produce “…any records, files, forms, summaries, documents, materials, e-mails and statements, or any other documentation related to reports or allegations of clergy or any other church or school employee or volunteer pertaining to any inappropriate conduct with a child between April 16, 1997, and January 1, 2019.”

Inappropriate conduct is a much broader issue than sexual assault or abuse of a child and could include conduct which is not criminal.

Due to the surprise and the unreasonable timeframe in which recipients were given to respond, attorneys for the dioceses asked for more time in which to comply and asked the AG to clarify what he actually wanted. The AG declined to cooperate. After the dioceses sought a judge’s ruling on the matter, the AG decided that he was able to cooperate after all.

Sometimes it takes no more than an inquiry into the sexual assault of children to lead people to conclude that there is systematic ongoing sexual assault of children. Satan likes it when people assume.

The entire incident raises a number of questions for the average observer:

  1. Why the rush? The AG has had over 14,000 pages of documentation since September, 2018. Yet six months later, the AG decides he must have more information within three working days?
  2. Why the secrecy? Why did the AG try to silence the recipients of the subpoenas?
  3. Why the contradiction? Why did the AG try to impose secrecy about the existence of the subpoenas while at the same time, in publishing the press release, informing everyone of the existence of the subpoenas?
  4. Why did the AG try to direct the recipients of the subpoenas to the AG’s investigator instead of mentioning that the recipients had the legal right to contact their attorney?
  5. Why the surprise? Why didn’t the AG simply continue to cooperate with the dioceses when in the AG’s own press release, he states: “The Nebraska Department of Justice has appreciated the voluntary cooperation demonstrated by the churches.”
  6. Most importantly, why is the AG only concerned with the safety of Catholic children? The chief law enforcement official should be concerned about all children. Yet, the AG served no subpoenas on other churches, institutions, or organizations who deal with large numbers of children. This is especially confounding when a number of Nebraska’s churches and youth-related institutions have had known incidents of child sexual abuse in the recent past.

As we have seen with all institutions, religious and secular, who deal with children, this is not a Catholic problem. It is a cultural problem. Any refusal to investigate all institutions is therefore evidence of bias. The bias should be against all perpetrators. Unfortunately, the bias appears to be against only Catholic perpetrators. To some of us, it seems strange that some people overlook the victims of non-Catholic perpetrators.

Maybe it is simply blindness? Maybe people have no idea that wherever there are children we will have people who are trying to use those children for their own purposes. Do law enforcement officers fail to put two and two together when they investigate sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church, the Texas public schools, the Chicago public schools, or youth sports programs? Are reports of abuse which are related to schools, youth groups, youth sports programs, and other youth activities simply written off as aberrations?

There is more to this than bias or blindness. Have you noticed that we do not hear much in the way of critical commentary about the Catholic abuse crisis from Boy Scout leaders, public school officials, coaches, non-Catholic church leaders, or others who head organizations or institutions who deal with large numbers of youth? Instead, the majority of the criticism comes from Catholics who are frustrated with the Vatican’s insufficient response or from individuals who are simply sitting behind their computer screen, looking for any reason to criticize the Catholic faith. There are also comments from victim advocacy groups, political figures, reporters, and media outlets.

When you do hear a credible non-Catholic religious figure commenting on the Catholic Church’s abuse crisis, they are often pointing out that it is not just a Catholic issue. They appear to realize that it is a cultural issue which impacts all faiths and all secular organizations as well.

There but for the grace of God go I. It seems plausible that there are many non-Catholic religious leaders and secular leaders who intentionally remain silent for fear that they will someday receive a call from a law enforcement officer, asking for decades of their records on past cases of child abuse. The words of Christ echo: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). It also seems plausible that AGs are keen to stay consistent with public opinion and pick off the seemingly easy target known as the Catholic Church, instead of irritating a number of voters by going after youth athletic programs, schools, Boy Scouts, and non-Catholic Christian churches.

The Nebraska AG will find cases of abuse in the Nebraska Catholic dioceses. We know of cases from the 1980s and 1990s due to press reports last year. A handful involved children while in a couple of cases seminarians complained of unwanted sexual advances. The largely successful Dallas Charter issued in 2002 to protect children was not enforced in Lincoln until 2015, thus opening up the diocese to public scrutiny and suspicion. However, the problem of sexual assault is not going to get better by making believe that the Catholic Church is the problem. We need to go after all predators, not just Catholic predators, and we need to protect all children, not just Catholic children.

The most frustrating part in all this is that, in the USA in recent years, the largest part of the Catholic abuse crisis does not involve the sexual abuse of children. The crisis is the sexual abuse of adults and the disregard for continence and virtue by bishops, priests, and lay Catholics—the largest portion being homosexual in nature. Those same bishops who issued the Dallas Charter in 2002 were unwilling as a group to extend those same protections to adults. If they had, we would have been spared much internal strife as well as the frequent investigations from secular law enforcement.

Bob Sullivan

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Bob Sullivan and his wife Carmen are the parents of five daughters. They live in Hastings, Nebraska, where they attend St. Cecilia Catholic Church. When he’s not practicing law, Bob writes and speaks about faith and the teachings of the Catholic Church. He writes a column for the Southern Nebraska Register and has had several articles appear in Catholic Answers Magazine. He blogs at www.bsullivan.org and www.thosecatholicmen.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@BobSullivan87) and Facebook (bob.sullivan.10004).

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