SNAP Update: A “Shout Out”–and A Challenge–to Prosecutors

Last week, a Missouri prosecutor did something I’d never seen before. His courage prompted me to think about how district attorneys handle child sex abuse cases, especially involving influential institutions and oppressive cultures.

My conclusion: prosecutors deserve both praise and prodding. Too often, they seem to play it safe, pursue only the low hanging fruit and carefully avoid confronting powerful organizations. But increasingly, some of them seem to be acting with more creativity and vigor. They deserve recognition for doing so.

So first, the praise:

In Platte County Missouri, after two hours of police questioning, Darren L. Padden pled guilty to sexually assaulting a girl 200 and 300 times over a decade, starting when she was four.

Sadly but not surprisingly, almost 20 adults in the community publicly rallied to Padden’s side. Here’s the shocking part though: The local district attorney called them out by name.

Upset by such callousness, prosecutor Eric Zahnd sent out a new release. He blasted these irresponsible individuals for adding to the now 18 year old victim’s pain by writing letters or testifying on behalf of the admitted predator. And Zahnd named each one of them: a local school board member, a former bank president, a former county official, a female church elder, a male church trustee, a nurse and two ex-teachers and two ex-school district employees. (Their names are listed at the end of this blog.)

So again, kudos to prosecuting attorney Eric Zahnd. Thanks to him, a serial predator is behind bars and a girl is no longer being assaulted. And thanks to him, many in northwest Missouri now know who sides with predators and against victims. Hopefully, others who are tempted to back a child molester – and hurt a victim – will think twice before minimizing horrific crimes, helping sick predators and hurting already-wounded victims.

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of knowing other fearless and creative prosecutors in Missouri. They include:

–St. Louis’ Jennifer Joyce, who prosecuted Fr. Thomas Graham by taking advantage of an obscure and never-before-used state law,

–Kansas City’s Jean Peters Baker, who successfully convicted Bishop Robert Finn for concealing hundreds of child sex crimes by Fr. Shawn Ratigan from police, and

–Cooper County’s Doug Abele and Scott Fox, who prosecuted Fr. Jerry Howard (a.k.a Fr. Carmin Sita), using a very thoughtful, innovative and involved analysis of Missouri’s sometimes Byzantine abuse laws. (Years earlier, Howard pled guilty to molesting a New Jersey boy. Then, Catholic officials let him change his name and sent him halfway across the US to working among unsuspecting Boonville families where he of course, molested more kids.)

Missouri has no monopoly, of course, on admirable prosecutors:

–Several years ago, Bristol County Massachusetts prosecutor Paul Walsh took the unprecedented step of publicly disclosing the names of 21 credibly accused predator priests who had successfully run out the statute of limitations on their crimes.

–Notorious pedophile priest Donald McGuire committed hundreds of child sex crimes in dozens of jurisdictions. But a brave small town Elkhorn Wisconsin prosecutor, Phil Koss, took on this charming, well-connected child molesting cleric and won a conviction despite vicious, deceitful moves by Jesuit officials.

–Prosecutors Lynn Abraham and Seth Williams have led three grand jury investigations into the continued cover-ups of clergy sex crimes in Philadelphia, producing powerful reports that have exposed dozens of clergy who committed and concealed this horror.

Perhaps because I’m not a lawyer, and because “the grass is always greener elsewhere,” it seems to me that prosecutors have the best of both worlds. They have the actual tools it takes to prosecute wrongdoers: the authority, the resources, the discretion, the subpoena power, and all the rest.

And, by virtue of being high profile public officials, they also have the power of their bully pulpits.

When the law allows it, I beg them to use their power – to pursue those who commit and those who conceal child sex crimes.

But when the law is lacking, I beg them to use their voices – to expose both individual wrongdoers and systemic weaknesses. I beg them to name the bad guys by name – like Paul Walsh and Eric Zahnd did – and name the bad laws by name – like the statute of limitations.

By doing so, they can go beyond swatting mosquitoes and start draining swamps. They can go beyond just nailing bad guys and start deterring bad guys. They can help victims in the short term and really help kids in the long term.

It takes courage to do this. It’s not controversial or risky to charge purse snatchers or car jackers or child molesters. But it IS sometimes controversial or risky to say “The principal or the pastor suspected abuse but hid it” and “Our legislators know their inaction is helping cunning child molesters.”

But taking such risks and generating such controversy is what vulnerable kids and suffering victims need from our prosecutors. Let’s hope we start seeing more and more of it.