Does the clergy sex-abuse crisis make the Catholic Church a continuing criminal enterprise analogous to the Mafia or a drug cartel? Some people think it does. In the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia launched an investigation that will consider whether charges should be brought against Pennsylvania dioceses under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Practices Act (RICO).
Passed in 1970, RICO is a powerful federal law designed to target organized-crime syndicates by going after their leadership as well as the rank-and-file members who physically commit most of the crimes. Its provisions are harsh; RICO not only provides for hefty criminal penalties, but also authorizes civil lawsuits that may result in treble damages for victims of racketeering acts. In fact, several civil RICO suits have already been filed against church authorities and policymakers, including individual bishops, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and even the Holy See itself. One such civil suit brought in 1993 against the diocese of Camden was settled for a seven-figure amount.
A good lawyer may be able to fend off RICO suits against the church. In fact, it will likely be a challenge for prosecutors and plaintiffs’ lawyers to shoehorn the clergy sex-abuse crisis into the elements of a successful RICO suit. It will be difficult to show that the church engaged in acts of racketeering, which are modeled on mob activities such as violence, corruption, bribery or theft, fraud, drug trafficking, or money laundering. Moreover, civil litigants seeking monetary compensation need to demonstrate damage to their business or property, not simply personal injury, no matter how grave.
But RICO suits point to a bigger problem that the church can’t fix with a good lawyer. The criminal law has a pedagogical function. So do criminal indictments. A RICO count in a federal complaint conveys the message that the government thinks that the defendant organization deserves no more moral or social approbation than the mob.