Family Court and the Catholic Church: Shattering the Last Taboos for Institutions That Fail our Children

It is not the boogie man behind the bush or the stranger on the street. Most sexually abused children are abused by someone they know that are close to them—90 percent.

The damage being done due to the sexual abuse of children today and yesterday is overwhelming, and the statistics are off the charts. One in 10 children will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday; survivors can attest to the pain and trauma that lasts them a lifetime. The health cost to our society is in the billions of dollars annually—and we known today that drug addiction, PTSD, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, suicide and many other subsequent traumas can be the result of abuse as a child.

Yet the most egregious injustices against child sex abuse survivors happen each day in family courts.

The Appellate Division Courthouse of New York State, which hosts appeals from the Family Court in New York and Bronx Counties. (Wally Gobetz / Creative Commons)

According to the Leadership Council, 58,000 children a year are taken from a nurturing parent and forced to live with their abuser. Every day in the U.S., protective parents—the vast majority being women—find themselves on trial for attempting to defend their abused children. They go to court in good faith, then are blindsided by a court system lacking in training and awareness of the depth and breadth of incest. Most states rely on the “Best Interest of the Child Statute,” which means the parent that is able to nurture the relationship with the other parent is the parent, supposedly in the child’s best interest, to take on its care. Too often, this means that a father’s parental rights supersede a child’s right to be free from molestation and a mother’s right to protect them.

In our civilized society, we have laws against molesting children, but there exists a “national double standard” that tolerates a parent who sexually molests their own children. The secrecy and lack of accountability and transparency surrounding the Catholic church is very similar to the secrecy and lack of accountability found in that double standard within family courts.

Joan S. Meire, who has done extensive research, has found that child sexual allegations brought by mothers and children are almost never credited by the courts. “The data confirms that rates of mothers losing custody to allege abusers are at the highest when the mothers allege sexual abuse,” she explained to Ms. “The children do not have a break from their abuser as may have been plausible with the priest. These children are sentenced to a lifetime of abuse by the family courts and silenced. When will they have a grand jury?”

Courts, and the male-dominated church, refuse to believe that a father would abuse his own child; molestation in the church is seen as an individual affair, not a community matter. In both cases, abuse is thusly hidden away—judged to be a topic unfit for public scrutiny. Fox News reported that priests accused of child sex abuse have claimed that their constitutional rights to due process of the law are being violated. They feel accusations of abuse are detrimental to their reputations. But what about the rights of their victims?

Family court is a matter of exceptional public interest—just as the Catholic church is. Many of the abused children in court have disclosed their abuse numerous times to professionals, but the evidence of abuse is not allowed in court, or it is overlooked—just as the Bishops have done in cases of abuse perpetrated by priests. It is up to the judge’s discretion to admit or deny evidence, endangering the welfare of the children and creating an obstruction of justice.

Child abuse is a crime. Yet for too long, in both bodies, robed men in power have denied survivors justice and forced them into silence and isolation.

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” Pope Francis wrote recently in the New York Times. “We showed no care for the little ones: we abandoned them.”

His long-delayed acknowledgement of the church’s shortcomings represented a rare ray of hope for the thousands who have suffered child abuse in the church. Where is the hope for those little ones who have no protection in our family courts?


Maralee McLean is a child advocate, protective parent, domestic violence expert witness, professional speaker and author of Prosecuted But Not Silenced: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children. She has written several articles for the ABA Child Law Journal, Women’s eNews and other publications and is a SheSourceExpert and member of the RAINN speakers bureau and All American Speakers. Maralee presents at conferences, law schools, legal conferences and women’s rights conferences and is a spokesperson for protective mothers.