Pennsylvania report documents over 1,000 victims of priest abuse

This is a map of Pennsylvania showing the six Catholic dioceses covered by a grand jury report on an investigation of abuse claims made in those dioceses. The report covers a span of more than 70 years. (CNS/courtesy of USCCB)

In an emotional press conference on Tuesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro unveiled a more than 800-page grand jury report that chronicles seven decades of sexual abuse of children by priests in six Catholic dioceses and the “systematic cover up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.”

Mr. Shapiro said that his office’s two-year investigation identified 301 priests who abused children and more than 1,000 victims. He said members of the grand jury told him they believe the number of victims is much larger.

He described in detail many of the acts of abuse, saying church leaders had employed euphemisms in the past to cover up what was happening.

“Church officials routinely and purposely described the abuse as horseplay and wrestling and inappropriate contact. It was none of those things,” Mr. Shapiro said. “It was child sexual abuse, including rape, committed by grown men, priests, against children.”

Mr. Shapiro said that his office’s two-year investigation identified 301 priests who abused children and more than 1,000 victims.

He slammed bishops and other church leaders for thwarting inquiries, protecting priests and acting hostile toward victims.

“The cover-up was sophisticated. And all the while, shockingly, church leadership kept records of the abuse and the cover-up. These documents, from the dioceses’ own ‘Secret Archives,’ formed the backbone of this investigation,” Mr. Shapiro said at the news conference in Harrisburg.

[Explore America's in-depth coverage of Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.]

“Above all else, they protected their institution, at all cost,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Mr. Shapiro lamented that some church leaders cited in the report for mishandling abuse claims have been promoted, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington who headed the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.

“Bishop Wuerl,” he said, “is now Cardinal Wuerl.”

The cardinal released a statement on Tuesday, in which he called the sexual abuse of children “a terrible tragedy” and defended his own record in Pittsburgh.

“As I have made clear throughout my more than 30 years as a bishop, the sexual abuse of children by some members of the Catholic Church is a terrible tragedy, and the Church can never express enough our deep sorrow and contrition for the abuse, and for the failure to respond promptly and completely,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

“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,” he continued. “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.”

The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, also condemned sexual abuse and said that U.S. bishops “are shamed by and sorry for the sins and omissions by Catholic priests and Catholic bishops.”

But he said policy changes bishops made in 2002 have made the church a safe place for children and holds priests accountable for abuse.

The report acknowledges that most of the abuse cases it documents occurred “before the early 2000’s” and it says it invited bishops to explain how their dioceses have changed when it comes to protecting children from abuse.

“It appears that the church is now advising law enforcement of abuse reports more promptly,” the report states. “Internal review processes have been established. Victims are no longer quite so invisible.”

“But,” the report continues, “the full picture is not yet clear.”

The report also takes issue with the failure to hold bishops and other church leaders accountable for mishandling allegations of abuse, stating, “despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability.”

The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, also condemned sexual abuse and said that U.S. bishops “are shamed by and sorry for the sins and omissions by Catholic priests and Catholic bishops.”

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing,” the report says, “they hid it all.”

“We pledge to maintain transparency and to provide for the permanent removal of offenders from ministry and to maintain safe environments for everyone,” Cardinal DiNardo said in a statement co-signed with Bishop Timothy L. Doherty of Lafayette, Ind., chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. “All policies and procedures regarding training and background check requirements are made publicly available by dioceses.”

The grand jury recommended four changes to help victims of abuse, including cases of abuse that took place too long ago for prosecution or civil lawsuits. The report recommends eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children, creating a two-year window for victims of sexual abuse to file lawsuits, clarifying penalties for failing to report abuse and banning non-disclosure agreements regarding cooperation with law enforcement.

Addressing his words to the state’s bishops, Mr. Shapiro said: “Statements are one thing. The proof of their claims will be if they support each of the grand jury’s four recommendations.”

“Stand up today, right now, and announce your support for these commonsense reforms,” he continued. “That is the real test that will determine whether or not things have really changed or if it will just be business as usual.”

While the attorney general was critical of Catholic bishops, he praised Bishop Lawrence Persico of the Diocese of Erie, saying he was the only Pennsylvania bishop who testified in front of the grand jury in person rather than submitting a written statement.

The Pennsylvania report echoes the findings of many earlier church investigations around the country—and in other Pennsylvania dioceses—in its description of widespread sexual abuse by clergy and church officials’ concealment of it.

What distinguished this probe was its extraordinary scope: The grand jury scrutinized abuse allegations in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses that, collectively, minister to more than half the state’s 3.2 million Catholics.

The report details allegations in six dioceses going back 70 years.

“Predators in every diocese weaponized the Catholic faith and used it as a tool of their abuse,” Mr. Shapiro said.

He also said that the church’s failure to protect children was exacerbated by law enforcement and a criminal justice system that sometimes looked the other way after claims were made.

The grand jury’s work might not result in justice for Catholics who say they were molested as children. While the nearly two-year probe has yielded charges against two clergymen—including a priest who has since pleaded guilty, and another who allegedly forced his accuser to say confession after each sex assault—the vast majority of priests already identified as perpetrators are either dead or are likely to avoid arrest because their alleged crimes are too old to prosecute under state law.

The Pennsylvania grand jury, convened by the state attorney general’s office in 2016, heard from dozens of witnesses and reviewed more than a half-million pages of internal documents from the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses.

Some current and former clergy named in the report went to court to prevent its release, arguing it violated their constitutional rights to reputation and due process of law. The state Supreme Court said the public had a right to see it but ruled the names of priests and others who objected to the findings would be blacked out pending a September hearing on their claims.

The identities of those clergy members remain under court seal.

A couple dioceses decided to strip the accused of their anonymity ahead of the report and released the names of clergy members who were accused of sexual misconduct. On Friday, the bishop of Pittsburgh’s diocese said a few priests named in the report are still in ministry because the diocese determined allegations against them were unsubstantiated.

Mr. Shapiro spoke to a group that included some survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

“Unlike the Catholic Church, and some in law enforcement, we hear you, and we believe your truth,” he said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. This story has been updated.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Dave Smith
2 years 3 months ago

Catholics are FURIOUS over this! Catholic are boycotting- by not donating money to there archdioceses & sign petitions for Cardinals resignations. There going to be a huge march at the U.S. Bishops' meeting November 12 to 15 (see www.thebishopsknew.com). All people, including Cardinal & Bishop, should heed the warning of our Blessed Mother in Fatmia- "More souls go to Hell because of the sins of the flesh than for any other reason. Priest must be holy, very holy." Please everyone don’t just be nice, be HOLY- be saints!!!! Thank you for letting me voice my 2 cents on this subject. Amen.

Anne Grady
2 years 3 months ago

Celibacy is wrong. The all male priesthood is wrong. Women not in leadership positions in the church is wrong. The Catholic Church is obsolete when it comes to birth, death, life, prayer and does not know how to comfort people or help people. The abuse is a result of not changing, not including women, not loving people, not accepting sexuality or marriage or family as a major part of the human person. Also the changes in the liturgy "many" are saved not all, “Jesus through the Holy Spirit is incarnate of the Virgin Mary” not BORN of the Virgin Mary, “begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father” not ONE with the father? Begotten not made? What the hell does this mean? Because of lies, cover-ups, hypocrisy, exclusion, power, thousands of damaged children, hundreds of damaged priests. I am so uncomfortable in church and sad. It seems we have not moved on to Easter… And we have no say in all the mumbo jumbo. It’s depressing.

Molly Roach
2 years 3 months ago

One of the dynamics of all this that bears close scrutiny is the stark probability that priests/bishop who were sexually active with other adults were being blackmailed by those who were assaulting children--threatening to reveal what they knew. Breaking the promise or vow of celibacy ended up putting a lot of children at risk because those who broke it could be pressured against taking action against the sexual assailant. We've got to start connecting the dots people.

Carolyn Disco
2 years 3 months ago

Absolutely right, Molly, as shown in research by Richard Sipe, former Benedictine, psychotherapist, author on books on celibacy, expert witness for victims in countless court cases, who died a week ago at 85. He found a genealogy of abuse down to the third generation among priests, bishops and cardinals. Everyone knows the secrets of others and so is vulnerable.
Sipe posted online on his blog about ten years ago the legal settlements bishops made with McCarrick regarding abuse of priests and seminarians. The text is all there to see, just scroll down to the bold black text. Amazing what a little googling could accomplish, but so many just "had no idea." The ignorance was astounding. http://www.richardsipe.com/Comments/2008-04-21-McCarrick_Syndrome.html

Molly Roach
2 years 3 months ago

Denial. It's not just a river in Egypt.

The latest from america

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in ”Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” (David Lee/Netflix).
Chadwick Boseman also appears in his final performance before his untimely death.
Rob Weinert-KendtDecember 04, 2020
As Covid-19 vaccines become available, is crucial that all government agencies work through the ethical conundrums of vaccine distribution beforehand—and be prepared to make hard decisions.
The EditorsDecember 04, 2020
Public health experts said that faith leaders can leverage the trust of their congregations when it comes to encouraging the use of vaccines.
Michael J. O’LoughlinDecember 04, 2020
Israeli police arrested a Jewish man after he allegedly threw a firebomb inside the Basilica of All Nations at Gethsemane Church on the Mount of Olives Dec. 4.
Judith SudilovskyDecember 04, 2020