The Catholic Church in Pennsylvania conducted a decades-long “systematic” and “sophisticated” cover-up to protect alleged predator-priests, a state grand jury concluded, following a nearly two-year investigation into how local Church officials handled child sex-abuse allegations.
In announcing the grand jury’s findings, which were detailed in an 884-page report released on Aug. 14, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro blasted Church leaders for showing “a complete disdain for victims” and having fought to prevent the report from being released to the public.
“In fact, they wanted to cover up the cover-up,” Shapiro said during a press conference in which more than a dozen clergy sex abuse victims, most of whom were middle-aged adults, sat behind him.
The grand jury’s report said the investigation uncovered credible evidence against 301 priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses: Erie, Allentown, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
Pennsylvania’s two other dioceses — Altoona-Johnstown and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — were the subjects of previous grand jury investigations into clergy sex abuse.
The new report identified more than 1,000 child victims, but the grand jury said it believes there are many more who did not come forward.
Only two priests — from the dioceses of Erie and Greensburg — who were named in the report were criminally charged because the statute of limitations had expired in the other cases.
“Due to the Church’s manipulation of our weak laws in Pennsylvania, too many predators were out of reach,” Shapiro said. “The cover-up made it impossible to achieve justice for the victims.”
The report, which details 70 years of alleged priestly misconduct and malfeasance on the part of the state’s bishops, was the culmination of an 18-month probe that Shapiro emphasized remains open for other victims to come forward.
The bulk of the report concerns allegations — many of which the grand jury said were corroborated by internal Church documents, including written confessions — that occurred before the early 2000s. While noting improvements that the dioceses have undertaken since the United States bishops’ 2002 Dallas Charter on clerical sex abuse, the grand jury said “the full picture remains unclear.”
“We know that child abuse in the Church has not yet disappeared, because we are charging two priests, in two different dioceses, with crimes that fall within the statute of limitations,” the grand jury said.
‘It doesn’t go away’
Several victims at the press conference became emotional as Shapiro cited several graphic examples from the report of priests who were alleged to have molested and raped their victims, one as young as 18 months. The victims were mostly boys. Some were teens and many were prepubescent. The report said some victims were manipulated with alcohol and pornography.
“It doesn’t go away. It has an effect on you for the rest of your life,” said Shaun Dougherty, a clergy sex-abuse survivor who, in a prerecorded video before the press conference, added that the abuse had “absolutely destroyed” him.
In its recommendations, the grand jury recommended that lawmakers eliminate the state’s criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children, expand the civil window to allow older victims to sue for damages, clarify the penalties for failing to report suspected child abuse and to make clear that civil confidentiality agreements cannot legally prohibit victims from speaking with law enforcement.
The report took several bishops to task for their handling of clergy sex abuse. Those who were criticized included Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988-2006, who is the current archbishop of Washington. The grand jury accused the cardinal of coining the phrase “circle of secrecy” to describe the alleged abuse cover-up.
In a prepared statement, the Archdiocese of Washington disputed the accuracy of that statement, saying that the document the grand jury obtained that contained that phrase was not written by then-Bishop Wuerl.
In his own statement, Cardinal Wuerl said that while the grand jury’s report was critical of some of his actions, he believed it also confirmed that he “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
Said Cardinal Wuerl, “I sincerely hope that a just assessment of my actions, past and present, and my continuing commitment to the protection of children will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report.” He has since also launched a new website: thewuerlrecord.com.
Several bishops in Pennsylvania released statements in advance of the grand jury report’s release.
A week before the report’s release, the Diocese of Harrisburg released a list of clergy and seminarians accused of sexual abuse of minors. This list is available on a new website, youthprotectionhbg.com.
In a prepared statement, Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer, who became the diocese’s bishop in 2014, said he read the grand jury’s report “with great sadness,” adding that “behind every story is a child precious in God’s sight; a child who has been wounded by the sins of those who should have known better.”
While his fellow Pennsylvania bishops submitted written statements, Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie testified in person before the grand jury. The report said Bishop Persico’s testimony “impressed” the grand jury as “forthright and heartfelt.”
In his prepared statement before the report’s release, Bishop Persico — who became bishop of Erie in 2012 — said victims of clergy sex abuse had “suffered in darkness for a very long time,” and that Church leaders failed to adequately address the problem of sexual abuse in the Church. Bishop Persico added that the diocese will be revising its Policy for the Protection of Children and Youth.
In a time when the Church in the United States also is reeling from allegations that Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, 88, the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, sexually abused seminarians and minors, Bishop Persico also asked the faithful to pray for victims and for the Church.
Said Bishop Persico, “It will take time to heal the Body of Christ.”
Brian Fraga is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor.