Two days after the release of a massive grand jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse against children by priests in Pennsylvania, the Vatican issued a public statement, calling the abuse described in the nearly 900-page document “criminally and morally reprehensible” and pledging to victims, “the Pope is on their side.”
“Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent,” said the statement, attributed to the director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke.
“Regarding the report made public in Pennsylvania this week, there are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow,” Mr. Burke said.
“The Holy See treats with great seriousness the work of the Investigating Grand Jury of Pennsylvania and the lengthy Interim Report it has produced,” he continued. “The Holy See condemns unequivocally the sexual abuse of minors.”
“The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur,” he said.
But Mr. Burke says the report also demonstrates that changes the church made in 2002, following revelations of widespread clergy sexual abuse and its coverup by church leaders, are working.
“By finding almost no cases after 2002, the Grand Jury’s conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse,” he said.
That has also been the refrain of some church leaders in the United States as well, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington.
The D.C. cardinal served as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. His decisions about how to handle priests accused of sexual abuse are scrutinized by the grand jury report, which chronicles allegation of sexual abuse by priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. The report was released on Tuesday at a news conference held by Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The report showed that then-Bishop Wuerl removed some priests accused of sexual abuse from ministry, butting heads with the Vatican in one case.
“I really think that overall Wuerl exercised his oversight properly,” Nicholas Cafardi, the former dean of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University School of Law, told The Washington Post.
But some critics have said the report shows that then-Bishop Wuerl mishandled other allegations of abuse when he was bishop by not alerting bishops in other dioceses that some priests from Pittsburgh ministering in other places had been accused of sexually abusing minors.
The Archdiocese of Washington defended Cardinal Wuerl’s record in Pittsburgh, noting that he enacted a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual abuse long before U.S. bishops adopted this approach in 2002. The archdiocese published on Tuesday a special website listing steps then-Bishop Wuerl took to combat sexual abuse, but removed it after outcry from some Catholics, who called it “all too corporate and unpastoral.” (A spokesman for the archdiocese took responsibility for the website, writing in a Facebook post on Wednesday that the website was a “distraction.”)
In an interview with Washington’s Fox television affiliate on Wednesday, the cardinal defended his record and said he would not resign.
“My efforts from the time that I reached Pittsburgh [until] today, I’ve tried to do my very best to deal with this whole question of allegations against a priest. Now, remember, we’re dealing with a long spectrum of time, so how we dealt with things in the late ’80s and early ’90s is different than the way we would today,” the cardinal told Fox 5. “How do you deal with an allegation, and remember now when an allegation comes forward that allegation often times ends up being one word against another.”
Some alumni of a Catholic high school in Pittsburgh launched an online petition to strip Cardinal Wuerl’s name from the school. Bishop David Zubik, who heads the archdiocese, said he has not made a decision about the school’s name.
While church leaders say the 2002 changes, codified in the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” have been largely successful in changing how the church deals with allegations of abuse, Mr. Burke said that Vatican “encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm.”
“The Holy See also wants to underscore the need to comply with the civil law, including mandatory child abuse reporting requirements,” he added.
The grand jury report is just the latest revelation of sexual misconduct and abuse by members of the clergy. Earlier this summer, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was removed from public ministry following allegations that he sexually assaulted a minor. After more allegations of abuse surfaced, including reports that he sexually assaulted seminarians at a beach house he owned, the former archbishop of Washington resigned from the College of Cardinals.
On Thursday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced that bishops are seeking a Vatican-sanctioned investigation, carried out by lay people, into alleged abuse by Archbishop McCarrick and the creation of new protocols to deal with allegations against bishops.
Mr. Burke said that the pope was thinking of Catholics whose faith in the church has been rocked by the grand jury report.
“The Holy Father understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirit of believers and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the Church and in all of society,” Mr. Burke said.
“Victims should know that the Pope is on their side,” the statement concluded. “Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”