Catholic Church: Changing the Way Church Lawyers Address Sexual Assault Complaints

Everytime I read about the settlement agreements negotiated by the Catholic Church, I immediately ask why didn’t church lawyers call the police and report the sexual assaults. Why didn’t they protect the interests of everyone within the church and more importantly, what steps are being taken to ensure that church lawyers protect the interests of sexual assault victims in the future?

Lawyers are hired to protect the interests of their clients and the client’s information is usually considered confidential. They advise church leaders on a variety of issues including property, tax, and human resource matters. Lawyers are also the ones called when church leaders are notified of sexual assaults.

I’ve received these calls. From 2009–2012, I was the Chief Counsel of the Maritime Administration. I was responsible for a federal service school in New York and I shared client information with non-agency officials because by 2011 multiple sexual assaults had occurred on school property; students didn’t trust school leadership; there was no indication that existing policies were working; and there was no indication that the rate of sexual assaults would decrease on its own, absent direct intervention from outside authorities.

The actions I took in 2011 were consistent with the legal ethics rule that permits communication where there is a reasonable belief that doing so prevents substantial bodily harm. The bodily harm I was attempting to prevent was sexual assault and lawyers around the country, including lawyers representing the Catholic Church, are governed by similar rules.

The recently released nine hundred page report about the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania highlights hundreds of victims spanning seventy years. It also references settlements agreements. Why did the church lawyers negotiate these agreements instead of calling the police twenty, thirty, or forty years ago? What stopped them?

Additionally, why did these lawyers limit the definition of “client” to the organization’s leaders? I didn’t. As a federal agency chief counsel, my client included the students who attended the federal service school and as such, I owed them a duty of loyalty and this loyalty triggered the request for outside assistance. Why didn’t church lawyers owe a duty of loyalty to Catholic parishioners in 1960, 1970, 1980, or even 1990?

Parishioners have the positional power to demand change and remind church leaders that that the Catholic Church’s interests aren’t limited to those at the top. Parishes don’t exist in a vacuum. Church coffers are filled by parishioner contributions.

As a member of the Catholic Church, my recommendation to fellow parishioners is to demand new written policies that are publicly available on the procedures church lawyers will follow when notified of sexual assaults. The procedures should clarify that the lawyer’s client includes everyone within the organization — senior leaders and victims. Additionally, the procedures should require the lawyers to track the complaints, from allegation to resolution.

Lastly, parishioners should request that the local dioceses seek assistance from civil authorities in reviewing how past sexual assault claims were addressed. Past reviews, including the one done in 2002 after the Boston Globe articles were published, were inadequate. Put this request in writing. I did. See the letter below that I sent to the Apostolic Nuncio earlier this month.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp, former U.S. Maritime Administration Chief Counsel and parishioner, St. Peter Catholic Church

September 18, 2018

Archbishop Pierre

Apostolic Nuncio

3339 Massachusetts Ave NW

Washington, DC 20008

Dear Archbishop Pierre,

My name is Denise Krepp and I’m a parishioner at St. Peter Catholic Church in Washington, DC. Last night I attended a parish meeting to discuss the sexual assault scandals involving Catholic priests. Church representatives provided some information and I’m writing to you today to request more.

33 Priests

Church representatives shared that 33 priests were removed from their jobs at DC parishes between 1950 and 2002. Please provide the names of the priests and their parishes. In addition, please let me know why they were removed and if the church signed settlement agreements. If so, how much money was spent on the agreements and where did the money come from?

1986

Church representatives shared that Cardinal Hickey was notified about complaints filed against priests in 1986 and as a result, new reporting protocols were created in Washington, DC in 1993. Please share information about the 1986 complaints and how the church addressed them.

Requesting Assistance from Maryland Attorney General

Church representatives shared that bishops in other dioceses are requesting assistance from state attorney generals in reviewing past sexual assault cases. The DC Attorney General Karl Racine does not have jurisdiction to review sexual assault cases in Washington, DC, and for that reason, my ask is that the church request assistance from the Maryland Attorney General in reviewing DC cases.

2002 Protocols

Church representatives indicated last night that the Catholic Church didn’t have protocols for addressing sexual assault complaints until 2002 when the Dallas Charter was drafted. That statement is incorrect. Cardinal Hickey instituted new protocols in 1993 in DC. Additionally, church lawyers are required to follow state bar rules. State bar rules allow lawyers to communicate with law enforcement in order to prevent substantial bodily harm. They could have called the police at any time prior to 2002.

Thank you for your assistance.

Sincerely,

K. Denise Rucker Krepp, parishioner, St. Peter Catholic Church

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K. Denise Rucker Krepp

K. Denise Rucker Krepp

Homeland security, transportation, and sexual violence expert. Coastie. Former MARAD Chief Counsel. MST & transparency advocate. ANC6B10 Commissioner. Mom