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Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks to the press, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, to announce the findings of the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by clergy members in the Roman Catholic Church. Schmitt's office will refer 12 former clergy members for potential criminal prosecution. (Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com)

With the Catholic Church’s sordid history of enabling and covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the long failure of government to confront those crimes, it’s tempting to cheer any progress toward justice. That’s why, at first blush, last week’s news might have appeared promising: Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt forwarded the names of 12 former priests to local authorities for possible prosecution after an investigation that dredged up scores of previously unreported allegations against clergy in the state.

But a closer look suggests this progress toward justice is at best minimal.

A dozen possible prosecutions looks like a token next to the 74 criminal investigations underway in Kansas, which has less than half Missouri’s population. Could it be because the Missouri investigation left out the Jesuits and other orders that are home to a significant portion of Catholic clergy? Or that investigators contacted few if any of the Missouri activists and attorneys who have focused for years on clergy abuse and could have offered deep and relevant expertise?

Most problematic is Schmitt’s failure to investigate the church leadership’s protection of the priests, saying it wasn’t part of his “mandate.” Isn’t it always part of the attorney general’s mandate to confront criminal activity — which failure to report child abuse very much is? As Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles, who specializes in these cases, told us: “There is no way to address this issue without addressing the cover-up.”

Schmitt inherited the investigation of Missouri’s four Catholic Church dioceses last year from his predecessor, former Attorney General Josh Hawley, who initiated it under pressure as probes in other states were turning up previously unreported cases of clergy abuse by the hundreds. These included Illinois, where then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan last year found 500 cases over decades that the church had failed to report, and Pennsylvania, where a grand jury put the number in that state at more than 1,000.

The common thread is the church hierarchy’s systematic obstruction, clearly designed to protect the priests and the institution at the expense of the victims. Yet Missouri’s investigation relied mostly on documentation voluntarily provided by the church itself.

Schmitt says his office didn’t have authority to convene a grand jury and that in many of the cases in which the priests were still alive, the statute of limitations prevented criminal charges. Those are good arguments for reforming Missouri law to make it easier to address these cases. As attorney general, Schmitt is uniquely positioned to lobby the Legislature for such reforms.

That’s only the start of what he should be doing going forward. Twelve potential criminal prosecutions sounds better than none, but if that action is cited to declare this issue adequately addressed, it would be the opposite of justice.