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Thomas J. ReeseJanuary 10, 2019
Attorney General Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania speaks at a news conference in the state Capitol after legislation to respond to a landmark grand jury report accusing hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing children over decades stalled in the Legislature, on Oct. 17, 2018, in Harrisburg, Pa. Shapiro is flanked by lawmakers and victims of child sexual abuse. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

(RNS) — “Grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust” is how former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels describes last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report in its sweeping accusation that Catholic bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse.

The report from a grand jury impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses has revived the furor over the abuse scandal, causing the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and inspiring similar investigations in other states.

Steinfels argues that it is an oversimplification to assert, as does the report, that “all” victims “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institutions above all.”

Steinfels’ article will be published in Commonweal’s Jan. 25 issue and is currently available on its website.

Writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Steinfels acknowledges the horror of clerical abuse and the terrible damage done to children, but he complains that no distinctions have been made in the grand jury report from diocese to diocese, or from one bishop’s tenure to another. All are tarred with the same brush.

Steinfels’ article will be published in the magazine’s Jan. 25 issue and is currently available on its website.

A major fault with the report, according to Steinfels, is its failure to acknowledge the impact of the 2002 Dallas Charter, which changed dramatically how the church responded to abuse. The charter required reporting credible accusations to police, the establishment of lay review boards and the removal of any priest guilty of abuse.

He also notes that “a good portion of these crimes, perhaps a third or more, only came to the knowledge of church authorities in 2002 or after, when the Dallas Charter mandated automatic removal from ministry.” How can bishops be blamed for covering up crimes they did not know about?

“The report’s conclusions about abuse and coverup are stated in timeless fashion,” he writes. It leaves the impression that there has been no change in how bishops deal with abuse and that they are still leaving children at risk.

“There is not the slightest indication, not the slightest, that the grand jury even sought to give serious attention to the kind of extensive, detailed testimony that the dioceses submitted regarding their current policies and programs,” he states.

Almost all the media stories on the report, notes Steinfels, were based on the 12-page introduction and the dozen or so sickening examples in the introduction. The report was 884 or 1,356 pages long, depending on whether the dioceses’ responses were included. These responses were buried in the back of the report and are not included in the version on the attorney general’s website.

To show how diocesan policies got stricter over time, Steinfels examines the Erie Diocese in detail.

While the grand jury report accurately reports that Erie Bishop Donald Trautman reassigned an accused priest multiple times, it omits that these reassignments were to a chaplaincy at a nursing home, a senior living facility and a jail for adults, where the priest would not be ministering to children. The priest was forbidden to function as a priest outside of these assignments and was eventually barred from wearing priestly garb, before being kicked out of the priesthood altogether.

Nor does the report acknowledge Trautman’s assertion that “none of these priests is known to have reoffended.”

Steinfels points to the grand jury’s failure to report that Trautman attempted to meet with every victim and provided pastoral counseling and funds for therapy. It doesn’t reflect that in 2002 the bishop had all diocesan files reviewed by the Erie County district attorney, who concluded “no offenders remained in a position where they would present a danger.”

Most damning to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who ordered the grand jury report, is an Aug. 2, 2018, joint stipulation between him and Trautman stating that virtually all of the sweeping charges in the report were “not directed at Bishop Trautman.”

Steinfels does not argue that things are now perfect in the church, but that the sweeping allegations of the grand jury report were “designed to be a weapon in the debate” to support a legislative agenda.

Those charges included statements in the report that “all (victims) were brushed aside”; that “the main thing” was to avoid “scandal”; that “priests were raping little boys and girls and the men of God … did nothing”; that diocesan officials knowingly “enabled offenders and endangered the welfare of children”; and that they blocked law enforcement from investigating “crimes against children.”

Steinfels thinks the bad treatment of Erie was no exception. He shows how the phrase “circle of secrecy,” inaccurately attributed to Donald Wuerl when he led the Pittsburgh Diocese in the 1990s, had nothing to do with a church conspiracy, as the grand jury implied.

“Despite incomplete or inaccurate reports from Pittsburgh that prompted Cardinal Donald Wuerl to resign from his later position as archbishop of Washington,” writes Steinfels, “the response from Pittsburgh offers a clear, pointed rebuttal to many assertions in the report, for any reader willing to go to page 1,113.”

Steinfels does not argue that things are now perfect in the church, but that the sweeping allegations of the grand jury report were “designed to be a weapon in the debate” to support a legislative agenda.

“Its impassioned, graphic style; its characterization of church leadership as no better, perhaps even worse, than the abusers; its refusal to make distinctions between dioceses or between periods of time like pre- and post-Dallas Charter,” writes Steinfels, “all are aimed at mobilizing public opinion behind legislation suspending the statute of limitations for civil suits and discrediting church opposition.”

Acknowledging the progress made by the American bishops is important, as Steinfels writes, because their experience is very important for the rest of the church, which today often makes the same mistakes the Americans made in the past. There is a lot the bishops of the world can learn from the U.S. bishops, and to ignore the progress they have made is not helpful.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Amira Gupta
5 years 1 month ago

sexual abuse is very bad thing by the way are you looking money then try to take a personal loan from the given site

Andrew Wolfe
5 years 1 month ago


lisa connolley
5 years 1 month ago

I appreciate this line of discussion greatly. I returned to the Catholic Church a few years following the Dallas Charter when the proof was evident that the Church is one of the few institutions to have such a strict and well monitored process. Our government does not even have the level of accountability found now in our Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps if it did, some of our political leaders would not qualify for the responsibilities they have been given.

I am grateful that there has been this change - and hope more people will become of aware of its importance.

It is time to ask why Grand Juries, the Press, and others see the need to hide the truth of modern developments that have provided a safer environment in the Church, which is so necessary in other institutions.

Colin Jory
5 years 1 month ago

The Grand Jury was what I call a Jim Crow jury, rearing and ready to hang from the word go -- we've recently had an appalling case of one such here in Australia.

Tim O'Leary
5 years 1 month ago

Colin - if you're referring to Archbishop Philip Wilson (conviction overturned on appeal), you're right. While we don't have all the information on Cardinal Pell yet, this article gives strong arguments that it will go the same way: http://www.themediareport.com/2018/12/31/cardinal-george-pell-case-facts/

Molly Roach
5 years 1 month ago

What Peter Steinfels overlooks is that despite the changes of 2002, the bishops continued to obfuscate, lobby state legislatures to prevent statutes of limitation legislation from being passed, many of the past victims never had their day in court because of confidentiality "agreements" and so on and so forth. The grand juries can subpoena diocesan records, identify patterns of dealing with allegations across several dioceses, and clarify whether or not the patterns constitute obstruction of justice. No agency in the Church can do this--except the Vatican but they operate in secret and the bishops cannot demand each others records. The grand juries can bring light where there has been no light for a long time.

Nick Kaspar
5 years 1 month ago

Ms. Roach, you make some valid points. However, I did read the quite lengthy and in depth article by Mr. Steinfels and he does address those issues. Many of the victims requested the confidentiality agreements as part of settlement because they wanted to remain anonymous. By keeping not only their names secret but also the offending priests', there was less chance of exposure to the public since settlement agreements are part of the docket and dockets are public record. With regards to the Church fighting extension of statutes of limitations, you are right it is mostly because of self-preservation. But, its also because those extensions would be unevenly applied. Private, religious, and/or secular non-profits wouls be exposed while state agencies like schools, universities, prisons, and juvenile detention centers would not. And believe you me, abuse of minors AND adults goes on there with more regularity than the Church.

Jim Lein
5 years 1 month ago

The abuse problem does seem to mainly stem from the prep boarding school environment that existed for decades and may still exist in some places. People who went to non religious prep schools have talked about the male-male sexual behavior of those places, including creepy male swim coaches who demanded everyone swim nude. Yet these boys were not looking forward to celibate lives. They moved beyond such behavior into adult sexual relationships, most heterosexual, some homosexual. Pre-seminary preps were (or are) locked into a limited and likely a confusing mindset, taught by men from that very same limited mindset. And the impossibility of a truly celibate life really locked them in, as victims and sometimes, later, as victimizers. Such a negative environment for healthy psychosexual development.

Vince Killoran
5 years 1 month ago

The call for accuracy and a measured response is important, but it bumps up against the a defensiveness, a "whaboutism," and inability of church authorities to be called to acknowledge their many equivocations. So, yes, let's parse the evidence but transparency is necessary.

rose-ellen caminer
5 years 1 month ago

Thank you Mr. Steinfels. It's about time somebody of his stature broke away from the pack.When I first heard of this Pennsylvania report, my reaction was;this is deja vu all over again, Yet the media and many Catholics are treating this as if this was a new scandal. That the report addresses sexual abuse going back seventy years, as if there had not been radical cultural changes around sexuality, clericalism, the empowerment of the laity,psychological and sociological insights, made the whole report and the band wagon that ensued, if not dishonest , then tantamount to "fake news" and more of this hateful hysteria[existing also in "me too" and the purging of many people from their careers for sexual behavior that was once considered normal; it took two, and society at large, to tango].
The push to extend statute of limitations for sex crimes is part of this too.That there are statues of limitations for every crime except the taking of a human life, is rooted in rational, enlightened values. Not only do societal norms change, people do too , over time.Especially one should note, regarding sexual drives, or at least compulsive acting on them[lol].
Because our laws reflect our values and we profess to believe that justice is not the same as vengeance, we took into account the passage of time, and imposed legal statute of limitations. Now the all -male -church -hierarchy-haters[ the same anti male haters found outside the church too, and exemplified most recently by the hysterical attack on J. Kavanaugh over some decades old sex abuse allegation when he was a teen] has unfortunately led to this call to change perfectly rational laws,a regressive and unjust and one can say unscientific over correction of crimes and attitudes that most adults participated in, in one form or another during those 70 years!
And I'll say it again; where is any talk of forgiveness? That was then,[ seventy years of then], this is now; the culture, which most lay and clergy, and even non Catholics were part of;regarding sexuality; repression, suppression, pedophilia; authority figures and institutions,was not what is is today.We were naive, ignorant,sexist , whatever. And if the fact that it was a different time, a different society then, is not enough , we are called to forgive. "How many years must a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea"!

Jeanne Devine
5 years 1 month ago

I read the entire Steinfels article. Although he makes some valid points, the overwhelming conclusion I come to is that it is too late, far too late, for the hierarchy to make amends that will convince the laity, or society in general, that they take (and will take) all appropriate measures to stop and report abusers in clergy and religious ranks. They have denied and stonewalled far too long.

Rockhurst Jesuits
5 years 1 month ago

Please take a close look at the measures in place now in dioceses, and don't lose hope. John Zupez, SJ

Andrew Wolfe
5 years 1 month ago

Very valuable details to the information on the grand jury report which had already struck me as very sensationalistic.

Catherine McKeen
5 years 1 month ago

With his 2005 book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, Peter Steinfels demonstrated his extraordinary grasp of the abuse crisis and its impact on the Church. I, for one, am grateful to hear his voice emerge again with his searing analysis of the flawed Pennsylvania grand jury report. He actually read all those thousand plus pages and nailed the distortions and indeed the lies therein. Thank you, Peter!

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