In 1970, Congress gifted prosecutors with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, intended to give crime fighters a powerful weapon to take down organized crime.
It became known as RICO, and at first, prosecutors were unsure what to make of it.
Previously, they could go after members of criminal organizations for their individual crimes, but they didn’t have a tool for dismantling an organization dedicated to illicit activity. They were skeptical that the new law would fill that void.
One of the first tests of the law came in 1979, when federal prosecutors in California employed it to go after the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels and its president, Sonny Barger.
Barger and the Angels were acquitted.
Since then, though, the law has proved useful in cases involving everything from run-of-the-mill organized crime to securities fraud to a host of white-collar crimes.
And now, as we have learned more about the Catholic church’s conspiracy of silence and cover-up regarding sex crimes against children dating back decades, there is the appearance that RICO could come into play.
Some wonder if it could be used to go after the church hierarchy, holding it criminally responsible for the sins of the hundreds of priests who preyed on children, as outlined in the Pennsylvania grand jury report that found widespread abuse in a half-dozen of the state’s dioceses.
Well, about that.
While civil suits filed against the church have resulted in billions of dollars in settlements for victims of abuse, there have been no attempts to hold the church criminally responsible for its actions.
“The lawyers who have been involved in these cases have always thought that the church operated like a criminal enterprise,” said Steve Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer who sued the Archdiocese of Camden under the civil provisions of the RICO law in 1993, the first time the law had been applied to cases involving the church.
“Those people need to be in jail,” he said.
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The criminal provisions of the law don’t really apply to what the Pennsylvania grand jury, and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, described as a widespread conspiracy to cover up heinous crimes against children.
For one thing, as legal experts said, the federal RICO statute does not cover personal injury crimes. The way the law works is that prosecutors have to identify what are called “predicate offenses,” crimes furthered or covered up by the organization.
RICO, at least the criminal version, lists specific crimes that can be cited as “predicate offenses,” mostly crimes that serve to enrich the organization, the kinds of crimes that are the business of criminal organizations. Child abuse is not among them.
Lawyers have the option of employing the civil provisions of the RICO statute. One of the most infamous such cases, at least recently, was Art Cohen vs. Donald J. Trump.
Cohen, on behalf of those saying they were defrauded of thousands of dollars each by Trump University, filed a RICO suit against the then-candidate. The case was settled out of court for $25 million.
Civil RICO cases have been filed against the Catholic church with mixed success. The 1993 case filed by Rubino was quickly settled for an undisclosed amount.
Other RICO suits filed against the church were later dismissed by judges for a variety of reasons. The legal reasons can get into the tall, technical legal weeds and deal with the strict definitions of what constitutes an organization, among other things.
The Pennsylvania case has prompted a number of calls for reform, among them expanding or eliminating the statute of limitations for criminal charges to be filed and opening a window for victims to file civil claims against the church.
Another reform is outlined in a letter from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the Center for Constitutional Rights to the U.S. Justice Department.
It pushes for an amendment to the RICO law to allow the feds “to initiate a full-scale, nationwide investigation into the systemic rape and sexual violence, and cover-ups by the Catholic Church, and, where appropriate, bring criminal and/or civil proceedings against the hierarchy that enabled the violations.”
The Aug. 15 letter, addressed to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, listed a number of avenues for investigation, including looking into charges of obstructing justice, tampering with witnesses, sex trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation of children and RICO.
SNAP noted that it had made a similar request before.
“When SNAP called upon the Department of Justice in 2003 to initiate an investigation into the systemic sexual violence and cover-ups, it noted that a federal-level investigation was necessary because no one county or state-level jurisdiction could address the problem at its core because the ‘fragmentation of information’ concerning reported offenders ‘spread across a multitude of Dioceses and Religious Orders in confidential personnel files… has enabled the Catholic Church to avoid criminal investigation and prosecution’,” the letter states. “There was no response from the Justice Department to SNAP and no investigation.”
The Justice department has not responded to SNAP’s letter, the group reported.
Other lawyers have sought international litigation against the church, suing the Vatican for its complicity in crimes committed by its officials.
Marci Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO and academic director for CHILD USA in Philadelphia, was among the lawyers involved in filing a suit against the Holy See in federal court.
The suit faced an uphill battle, mostly because the Foreign Sovereignties Act makes it difficult to pursue litigation in U.S. courts against a foreign nation, the Vatican having been recognized as such by the U.S. government.
The suit was filed on behalf of a man who had been abused by a priest who had been transferred to Oregon after accusations of abuse arose in his native Ireland.
Hamilton and her colleagues prevailed in federal appellate court, but the case was eventually dropped while awaiting certification to the U.S. Supreme Court, mostly, as she explained, because of the “exorbitant” cost of pursuing international litigation.
Another reason: the onerous task of translating the reams of legal documents into Latin, the official language of the Vatican.
Engaging in such legal battles is complex, Hamilton said. “It is not much different than trying to take on organized crime … The only way to develop a case from the top down is to sue the pope. It can be done. We have done it.”
Beyond the legal barriers to holding the church responsible for its actions are the political reasons.
Advocates for victims say that prosecutors and elected officials could take steps to hold the church criminally liable for its actions. But they lack the political courage to do so, fearing a backlash from the church and its members at the polls.
“Every other institution in this country would be forced to be accountable to its members for this this kind of behavior,” said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP. “But the pope is accountable to no one.”