Several Catholic dioceses in Washington are being investigated for clergy sexual abuse.

— It isn’t the first time

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Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) announced an investigation into the dioceses of Spokane, Yakima and Seattle on May 9 claiming that they may have used charitable funds to hide child sex abuse allegations. Clergy abuse survivors say it’s a historic moment.

Mary Dispenza, a survivor and co-founding member of the Catholic Accountability Project (CAP), says that accountability for the alleged use of charitable funds for abuse cover-ups could bring healing for victims.

“For victims, being a survivor of clergy abuse and nun abuse, it’s an exciting moment,” Dispenza said.

Dispenza says that the attorney general’s case is the first time that a sitting archbishop has been subpoenaed for covering up abuse records.

“The attorney general is saying ‘you’re not above the law.’ So it’s a historic moment for sure,” Dispenza said.

A state petition to enforce a subpoena against the three dioceses will be considered in King County Superior Court on July 12. Dispenza hopes that the subpoena enforcement is granted and that Catholics across the state are given access to that information.

“Catholics have a right to know what’s going on in a church that they’ve pledged money to and support,” Dispenza said. “There are people who are buried in Catholic cemeteries who would be turning over in their graves if they knew that there is money being used to protect the ‘sins of our fathers,’ so to speak.”

CAP issued a demand letter on Tuesday saying that the successor to Bob Ferguson, who is currently running for governor, should continue pursuing a statewide investigation into Catholic clergy abuse. The organization also urged the attorney general’s office to subpoena the west province of the Society of Jesus along with the Christian Brothers and Franciscan Friars.

It is not the first time Spokane’s Catholic clergy have been the subject of investigations.

The national avalanche of abuse claims against Catholic clergy can be traced back to a 1985 National Catholic Reporter investigation into a priest who abused several boys in Lafayette.

Since then, the Church has undergone an international reckoning concerning the lack of accountability measures which allowed pedophile priests to go unchecked for decades. The papacies of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all addressed the abuse controversies which precipitated the NCR piece.

In Spokane, the abuse crisis caused a financial headache for the diocese. Under the leadership of Bishop William Skylstad the diocese agreed to pay $48 million in 2007 to nearly 200 people who were sexually abused by clergy. Legal battles surrounding the amount the diocese would have to pay continued through 2010 as new abuse claims came to light.< The diocese maintains a webpage containing a list of credibly accused clergy. According to its website, 12 men representing the diocese have been credibly accused, four of whom are still alive.

In addition to diocesan clergy, priests and brothers from Roman Catholic religious orders have also been accused of sexual abuse in Spokane. While a handful of Franciscan, Benedictine and Marianist clergy have been accused, the Jesuits have been the subject of the majority of abuse claims.

Sexual abuse perpetrated by religious orders in eastern Washington likely began with indigenous boarding schools which removed native children from their parents to be educated by white Catholic clergy. While the exact number of indigenous children abused by members of the order is unknown, a 2023 Georgetown University forum acknowledged the issue as a systemic failure.

The Oregon Province of the Jesuits filed for bankruptcy in the face of hundreds of abuse claims in 2009 and reformed as Jesuits West. The final settlement for abuse victims totaled $166 million. Several victims and perpetrators were from Spokane.

A list of members credibly accused of sexual abuse since 1950 was published by Jesuits West in 2018 and included 130 incidents in Spokane.

The issue caused a fissure between the wider Gonzaga University community and the campus Jesuit residence in 2018. The Diocese of Spokane claimed that Gonzaga Jesuits failed to notify the bishop that Gonzaga had become the defacto retirement community for priests accused of sexual abuse.

Gonzaga responded with a commission to investigate sexual abuse claims against priests and offer recommendations to keep students safe which yielded a 45 page report in 2021. Of the twelve members of that commission only one was a Jesuit.

The surviving credibly accused Jesuits who were living at the Cardinal Bea House on Gonzaga’s campus are now living at a retirement community not associated with any educational institution.

On a diocesan level, Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly has sanctioned priests accused of sexual abuse, but has been criticized for his handling of sex abuse claims by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Nationally, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has implied that gay men are responsible for the Church’s decades-long struggle with abuse claims. In 2022, USCCB president Archbishop Timothy Broglio defended his initial 2018 claim that “the crisis of sexual abuse by priests in the USA is directly related to homosexuality.”

A 2011 John Jay College study found that there is no statistical proof that homosexuality or celibacy are responsible for the American Catholic sex abuse crisis.

The new Attorney General’s Office investigation into the diocese of Spokane has yet to yield any criminal or civil charges. The initial investigation began in summer 2023 according to the AG’s office.

Dispenza says that legal pressure on the church has the potential to bring more information to light and empower victims.

“The more stories we get out in the open, the more possibility there is for change, because in the story there is truth. Stories wake us up,” Dispenza said.

It is unclear whether Ferguson plans to launch investigations into additional dioceses or Roman Catholic religious orders.

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