What the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse says, and why it matters
“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this,” the report begins. “We know some of you have heard some of this before. There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
Over the course of nearly 900 pages released Monday, a Pennsylvania grand jury recounted hundreds of incidents of alleged sexual abuse involving Catholic priests in the state over the last 70 years and condemned the “wholesale institutional failure” of the church to address the problem.
(WARNING: Report contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse. Viewer discretion advised.)
“Today, the most comprehensive report on child sexual abuse within the church ever produced in our country was released,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement. “Pennsylvanians can finally learn the extent of sexual abuse in these dioceses. For the first time, we can all begin to understand the systematic cover up by church leaders that followed.”
The grand jury conducted a two-year investigation of alleged abuse in six dioceses: Erie, Allentown, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton. The other two dioceses in the state, Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, have been covered in previous grand jury probes.
All the accusations are horrific, but some are particularly unnerving. According to the grand jury, one priest forced a 9-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him and then gave him a bottle of holy water to rinse out his mouth. Another allegedly sexually assaulted a 7-year-old girl while she was in the hospital after her tonsils were removed.
A priest in Greensburg impregnated a 17-year-old girl, forged his superior’s signature on a marriage certificate, and then divorced the girl months later, according to the report. The priest remained in the ministry and was moved to another state.
In Pittsburgh, a group of at least four priests allegedly used whips and violence to assault young victims and produced child pornography, including taking photos of a teen boy who “was forced to stand on a bed in a rectory, strip naked, and pose as Christ on the Cross for the priests.”
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,” the report stated. “For decades.”
In total, the grand jury discovered credible claims of sexual abuse by 301 priests against more than one thousand children. The report stressed that investigators believe there are thousands more cases out there for which records were lost or were never reported at all.
Victim advocates applauded the grand jury and the attorney general for tackling this issue, and they praised the victims and witnesses who came forward to testify.
“We’ve been waiting for this for decades In my mind, it’s accurate to a T. These are stories I hear over and over again,” said Robert Hoatson, president and co-founder of Road to Recovery, who is a former priest and a survivor of clergy sex abuse.
Jane Fredricksen, executive director of the Faith Trust Institute, said she hopes the report results in greater transparency from the church going forward.
“We believe in help for those who have been harmed and accountability on the part of those who have harmed others,” she said.
Much of the report is dedicated to individual profiles of the hundreds of priests identified as alleged predators, including chronologies of their assignments and details of the accusations against them and what, if anything, was done about them.
One Allentown priest faced allegations of predatory behavior once in the early 1970s and again in 1984. When the second victim’s family pursued legal action in 1987, he was placed on a leave of absence. Despite being convicted and sentenced to probation, he remained a priest on leave until 2002, when he applied for and received retirement benefits from the church.
The diocese later received two reports of alleged sexual abuse committed by the priest in the 1960s, which it passed on to the local district attorney’s office. While still collecting retirement benefits in 2006, the priest was arrested in Long Island, New York for attempting to meet up with an undercover detective posing as a 14-year-old boy. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and is now a registered sex offender in New York.
In most of the cases uncovered by the grand jury, statutes of limitations have already expired for any criminal or civil action against the church or the priests involved. With alleged abuse dating back into the 1940s, many of the accused priests are already dead.
Attorney General Shapiro blamed the church for covering up allegations until they could no longer be prosecuted. The state was able to file charges against two priests for recent allegations revealed during the investigation. One, Father David Poulson, allegedly sexually assaulted a boy for eight years and made the boy confess his sins to him.
“You would predict you would have very few cases that are fresh, that are active cases now,” said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who has studied clergy sex abuse for three decades, pointing to changes the church has made in the last 15 years.
The report traced the history of the Catholic Church’s response to accusations, breaking it down into pre- and post-2002 eras. In 2002, the Boston Globe published groundbreaking investigative reporting on the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests in Massachusetts.
This scandal led U.S. bishops to develop the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” to establish procedures for dealing with accusations of crimes against children. Review boards were also created to handle internal investigations.
“The most important thing people have got to look at is what did and did not happen after 2002,” said Plante, co-editor of “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012.”
Before 2002, the response of bishops and church leaders in most cases followed a clear pattern, what the grand jurors described in the report as “a playbook for concealing the truth.” The seven steps identified by FBI profilers who reviewed case documents were:
- Use euphemisms rather than real words for the assaults in diocese documents
- Assign fellow clergy members to investigate instead of trained professionals
- Send priests to church-run psychiatric treatment centers for diagnosis
- If a priest is removed from a parish, do not tell parishioners why
- Keep providing the priest housing and living expenses even if they are using those resources to commit sexual assaults
- If the priest’s behavior becomes public, transfer him to a different location but do not remove him from the priesthood
- Do not tell the police; handle it as a personnel matter
“The bishops weren’t just aware of what was going on; they were immersed in it. And they went to great lengths to keep it secret. The secrecy helped spread the disease,” the report stated.
Plante has worked with dioceses trying to implement the 2002 charter and he has generally found church leaders have moved away from those secretive practices.
“I would say the church since 2002 has done a very good job of trying to get this right,” he said.
Hoatson does not share his confidence.
“In my mind, it has not improved at all,” he said. “The kids being abused today we won’t know about for 20, 30, 40 years The church has done nothing really structurally to combat the problem.”
Fredricksen has seen some progress since 2002, but if even one more child is still being abused, more work needs to be done.
“Across the country, there are dioceses that have taken action and have demonstrated transparency but there’s a long way to go,” she said. “There are still folks out there who have been harmed and I would say there still needs to be work to be done.”
With justice for most of the victims out of reach, the report offered several recommendations for changes in state policy that could help other victims in the future.
“We spent 24 months dredging up the most depraved behavior, only to find that the laws protect most of its perpetrators, and leave its victims with nothing,” the report stated. “We say laws that do that need to change.”
Those recommendations include eliminating statutes of limitations for sex crimes against children and creating a window of time to allow older victims to sue dioceses for abuse they suffered as a child. The grand jury also wants to eliminate any “wiggle room” in the law mandating reporting of abuse and insert an exemption to confidentiality agreements if they involve criminal activity.
“Knowledge of past crimes is only valuable if it is translated into actions that will help prevent future sexual abuse and cover-ups,” said Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a statement.
Hoatson is optimistic that the report will spur some legislative action.
“If this doesn’t convince legislators to lift the statute of limitations criminally and civilly in every state, I don’t know what will,” he said.
According to Plante, the benefit of the changes the grand jury is seeking would extend beyond victims of predatory priests.
“If we really want to protect kids then we need to have policies and procedures in place for any child abuse,” he said. “The Catholic Church is not unique. It gets a lot of press but other groups have problems too.”
The report was accompanied by hundreds of pages of responses to the grand jury’s findings, including statements by diocese leadership detailing corrective measures they have taken and letters from accused priests denying the allegations against them.
In one statement, Bishop Alfred Schlert of Allentown apologized on behalf of the diocese for the past actions of clergy members, but he emphasized improvements that have been made over the last 15 years.
“The Diocese will learn from the Grand Jury Report and continue to work with law enforcement to proactively use the Report to further improve protections for children and young people,” Schlert wrote. “Our first priority remains keeping children safe.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now overseeing the Archdiocese of Washington, was the bishop in Pittsburgh during many of the incidents that occurred there. While the report faulted him for not being proactive enough in prioritizing the victims of abuse, he defended his record Monday.
“While I understand this Report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the Report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse,” Wuerl said in a statement. “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.”
In a separate statement, the Archdiocese of Washington complained that the grand jury incorrectly attributed the phrase “circle of secrecy” to Wuerl to describe the church’s response to abuse allegations, despite his legal counsel informing the attorney general’s office of the error.
“Unfortunately, this is another example that in factual ways large and small the Attorney General’s office was more concerned with getting this Report out than getting it right. Such a focus detracts from the shared goals of protection and healing,” Wuerl spokesman Ed McFadden said.
This report represents an exhaustive examination of allegations of clergy sex abuse in 54 counties of one state. If similar investigations spanning decades of records were conducted in the other 49 states, experts expect similar patterns and similar disturbingly high numbers of victims and perpetrators would emerge.
“We’ve called for grand juries in every state,” Hoatson said. “That’s what has to happen, because they’re going to find the same thing in every state.”
Plante said his own research and a 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice both estimated about 4 percent of priests are accused of sexual abuse. The Pennsylvania grand jury alleged about 8 percent of the state’s priests abused children. If further investigations are done, percentages would vary from state to state, but he would still expect the average to come in around 4 percent.
“Certainly, if other states did what Pennsylvania did and look at cases over 70 years, yes, I think you would find similar horrific stories not only of abuse but of cover-up,” Plante said, though he added, “You won’t know unless you do that.”