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Kevin ClarkeAugust 14, 2023
A woman holds this sign as members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) hold a news conference in front of the Diocese of Pittsburgh Aug. 20 several days after a Pennsylvania grand jury released a stinging report that said more than 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children during the course of several decades. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Philadelphia is a “very Catholic city,” Barbara Daly will tell you. When you meet people in Philadelphia, “they don’t ask you what you do for a living.” Instead, she says, they ask what parish you belong to or what Catholic high school you attended.

This very Catholic city has been hammered in recent years by stories of the abuse of children by Catholic priests recounted in a series of grand jury reports, which culminated in a statewide grand jury investigation and a report released by the attorney general of Pennsylvania in August 2018. These events returned national attention to the church’s abuse scandal and inspired a flurry of similar investigations across the country.

Ms. Daly is the pastoral associate at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Ambler, Pa., outside Philadelphia. Lots of folks in the area, she recalls, reacted defensively to the city and state reports. Some felt that prosecutors were piling on, that the church was not offered an opportunity to defend itself. Some saw an anti-Catholic bias at work or headline-chasing by politically ambitious district attorneys. The fact that a previous grand jury report, released in 2011 by the disgraced former district attorney of the City of Philadelphia, Seth Williams, imploded after the credibility of a primary witness came into question has not raised her esteem for such efforts.

“The acts which were committed against children and young people are horrible, [and] the church needs to be living in the truth in order to speak the truth,” Ms. Daly says. “But someone like a Seth Williams”—who was convicted on unrelated public corruption charges and disbarred in 2017—”does make it harder to believe that [prosecutors’] motives were pure.”

She describes as “a complete mess” the prosecution of Msgr. William Lynn by a succession of Philadelphia district attorneys. The priest’s conviction in 2012 on one felony count of endangering the welfare of a child was overturned twice before he accepted a “no contest” plea on a misdemeanor charge after serving 33 months behind bars.

“At the end of the day, people are jaded,” Ms. Daly says. “We swim in a sea of accusations and counter-accusations, news reports speaking to one reality while our parishes try to live something completely different. Who to believe? What to believe? Who knows?”

Her reaction to the idea of more such reports on clerical abuse still to come from other jurisdictions and other states? “We know about this. Why are they dragging this up again?”

The church has made great strides since the first accounts of abuse hit the national press, she says. “Every year we have safe environment programs. You have to train the kids; you have to train the parents; nobody can work here unless they have all their clearances. It’s just become part of our life,” Ms. Daly says of the protections.

“So I guess my question is: What good [do the reports] do at this point?”

What More Can We Learn?

Twenty-one years after the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People bound most U.S. dioceses to new commitments and policies for the protection of children, there are few Catholics in the United States who are not familiar with the institutional and personal failures that propelled those important changes. Most have heard near-identical stories emerge from dioceses across the country that depict patterns of dysfunction and obstruction, and that have typified the church’s failures and its faltering response to its sex abuse crisis—moving abusive priests from parish to parish, hiding information until statutes of limitations expired and, finally, simply not reporting offenders to law enforcement or warning parishioners about predators in their midst. The problems were described in detail in studies the U.S. church itself commissioned in the aftermath of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight exposé in 2002.

Missing from those church-commissioned reports were the personal stories of what actually happened to now-adult victims and survivors of abuse, and the impact those experiences had on their lives. Those scalding histories were included, however, in the Pennsylvania grand jury report that became a kind of template for others that have followed it.

“I guess my question is: What good [do the reports] do at this point?”

BishopAccountability.org has been tracking and compiling news reports, data and analyses of the sex abuse crisis since 2003. According to its researchers, there have been 21 reports from grand juries, state attorneys and attorneys general at the municipal and state level from around the country since the organization began its mission. More are in the pipeline, with reports anticipated from New York, California, Michigan and, perhaps most significantly, from New Mexico, where the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete for decades ran a treatment center for priest abusers who were sent there from all over the United States.

Why Read Another Attorney General’s Report?

The new investigations have not yielded many indictments—the statutes of limitations for most of the crimes they uncover have long since expired and many of the accused have passed away. The reports have encouraged a number of states to revise civil and criminal statutes of limitation on offenses against children (although efforts to pass “look back” legislation have not succeeded in Pennsylvania). But Ms. Daly is not alone in wondering about the value of wading through these by-now grimly familiar accounts of disastrous decades out of the church’s past. Are we learning anything new?

Michael McDonnell, the communications manager for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, agrees that the prosecutors’ reports do not make easy reading—because of both their length and their content—but insists they remain prerequisites for “digesting the full scope of the decades of cover-up…to truly understand the impact that [the crisis] has had on individuals.”

At a minimum, the reports offer “a huge validation point” and new opportunities for healing for the victims and survivors, he says. “Often it’s like a discovery process” in a lawsuit, he adds. “You’re able to see who was responsible for the transfers, who knew about it.”

The release in May of a report five years in the making from the office of Attorney General Kwame Raoul of Illinois once again brought decades of abuse of children by Catholic clerics to national attention. At the conclusion of an investigation that began under his predecessor, Lisa Madigan, in 2018, Mr. Raoul told reporters that 25 staff members had reviewed more than 100,000 pages of diocesan documents and conducted more than 600 confidential interactions with contacts. He said the time and resources devoted to the effort were a necessary component of some measure of justice for survivors of sexual assault by Catholic clerics and religious.

Kwame Raoul: “It is my hope that this report will shine light both on those who violated their positions of power and trust to abuse innocent children, and on the men in church leadership who covered up that abuse.” 

“Decades of Catholic leadership decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight,” Mr. Raoul notes in the introduction to the 695-page report, “and because the statute of limitations has frequently expired, many survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic clerics will never see justice in a legal sense.

“It is my hope that this report will shine light both on those who violated their positions of power and trust to abuse innocent children, and on the men in church leadership who covered up that abuse. These perpetrators may never be held accountable in a court of law, but by naming them here, the intention is to provide a public accountability and a measure of healing to survivors who have long suffered in silence.”

The therapeutic value of simply conducting the investigation also was touched on by the authors of the Illinois report. Many of the survivors who contacted the attorney general’s office were choosing to share their experience for the first time, they wrote, “still battling the pain and suffering” caused by the abuse they experienced, often decades ago.

Digging Deeper Than the Headlines

Familiar headlines suggesting the cover-up and concealment of abuse by church officials followed a press conference at the Illinois report’s release, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago quickly became embroiled in an unpleasant public relations battle with Mr. Raoul’s office over some of the implications of the attorney general’s findings.

James Geoly, general counsel for the archdiocese, says that in the aftermath of Mr. Raoul’s press conference, headlines and news stories created “the impression that we have abusers out there right now.”

“The report is not clear enough that there is not a single priest in ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago with a substantiated allegation or an unresolved allegation—and [there] has not been [one] for decades,” he says.

Church officials felt blindsided by the manner in which the report was presented after years of institutional cooperation with the investigation, according to Mr. Geoly. Indeed, the attorney general’s narrative includes a number of expressions of appreciation for the cooperation of officials from Illinois dioceses.

Since 2002, “every single allegation we’ve received…is immediately reported to law enforcement.”

But that apparently cooperative spirit disintegrated rapidly into recrimination and finger-pointing after the report’s release to the public. The question of how to parse the numbers of the credibly accused played a prominent role.

At the time the investigation began in 2018, only two dioceses—Chicago and Joliet—of the ultimately six that were included had released names of accused clerics. As the investigation gathered steam and diocesan files were shared with investigators, all the dioceses began adding names to disclosure lists; they were often responding to recommendations from the attorney general’s office that led to expanded disclosures, for the first time including the names of deceased priests who had been credibly accused.

Press accounts seized on the gulf between the number of the first disclosures—103—and the final tally from the attorney general’s office of 451 credibly accused, together responsible for 1,997 victims. Mr. Geoly strongly objects to charges of diocesan concealment that have followed because of that fourfold increase, and says that the attorney general was “using some things that are mathematically true, but making them mean something they don’t mean.”

Since 2002, “every single allegation we’ve received…is immediately reported to law enforcement.” Chicago church officials even conducted a “look back,” he says, “where all the old historical allegations sitting in the files were found and also reported.”

This is the exact opposite of concealment, Mr. Geoly says, adding that if Mr. Raoul wanted to make the point that the names of some accused clerics were not posted on the archdiocese’s website, “he could have made it more clear that they were all previously reported to law enforcement.”

He was especially frustrated that virtually all of the “new” names of the accused released at the conclusion of the report were of men whose ministries fell outside the jurisdiction of the archdiocese—primarily members of the Christian Brothers, priests who were members of religious orders like the Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans, and “extern” priests, men working in the Chicago Archdiocese but who officially belonged to other dioceses.

Illinois investigators “talked in a very careful way at length with survivors, sat down with the documents and actually interacted with diocesan officials in a very nuanced way.”

It has been the practice of the Chicago Archdiocese, and many others around the country, to rely on religious orders to make disclosures of credibly accused clerics and lay brothers independently. That practice is explicitly deemed inadequate by the attorney general’s report, which includes a recommendation that Cardinal Cupich should consider barring from ministry in the archdiocese orders that do not release lists of offenders within their ranks. Despite his public differences with Mr. Raoul, Cardinal Cupich seems ready to accept that recommendation.

A report from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, released during Holy Week in April of this year, just a few weeks before the Illinois report, painted a similarly damning portrait of the past performance of the leaders of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. According to the report, over eight decades, more than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the archdiocese had sexually assaulted more than 600 children. Few ever faced consequences for these criminal acts.

How to parse the numbers of accused abusers and manage the release of their identities was similarly contested by archdiocesan officials in Baltimore.

Responding to ‘Shifting Goalposts’

Mr. Geoly argues that church officials have been contending with shifting goalposts since the abuse scandal first broke in 2002. First efforts, he says, focused on protecting children and identifying predators who remained active threats. Over time expectations about responses appropriate to the crisis have evolved, moving on to ideas of diocesan transparency and full disclosure that include posting names on diocesan websites of “credibly accused” clerics who may have been deceased for many years. That has led to some inevitable tensions.

“How much substantiation should there be before you publish someone’s name and call them a child abuser?” Mr. Geoly asks.

“How much substantiation should there be before you publish someone’s name and call them a child abuser?”

In Baltimore, Archbishop William E. Lori has found himself contending with similar accusations of cover-up. Archdiocesan policy in 1993 required sharing allegations with law enforcement but not the more expanded disclosure that included deceased clerics and clerics from religious orders that has been deemed a superior practice since then. (Baltimore updated its disclosure list of credible accused offenders in June, following the recommendation of the Maryland attorney general’s report.)

In a letter to parishioners, Archbishop Lori defended church officials under fire because of past policies explored in the report: “Some members of clergy whose names have been tied more recently to media coverage focusing on a ‘cover up’ are, in fact, some of the very people who helped force a culture change that rooted out evil and shut out attempts to conceal the failures or hide abusers. How is it a cover up if you report everything to law enforcement?”

However they are classified or tracked, the sheer number of substantiated abusers uncovered by the Illinois and Maryland reports is sobering. The first John Jay College study of the scope of the problem of the clerical abuse of children, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004, found that during the time frame it evaluated—1950 through 2002—4 percent of all U.S. priests (4,392 out of 109,694) were credibly accused of at least one instance of sexual assault.

But in a number of Illinois dioceses, the percentages of credibly accused priests were much higher. Investigators report that in the dioceses of Peoria, Joliet and Belleville, more than 8 percent of priests and religious brothers have substantiated accusations as child sex abusers during the 1990s. And investigators in Maryland found that some parishes experienced the presence of multiple abusers simultaneously. St. Mark Parish in Catonsville, for example, endured 11 abusers between 1964 and 2004.

The reports depict previous eras of church leadership when protecting the church’s reputation and rehabilitating pedophile priests seemed the primary focus. In contemporary times, however, Mr. Geoly insists that the church has made vast strides in putting the safety of children first and creating safe environments.

“Ever since the [Dallas charter in 2002], one strike and you’re out: One substantiated allegation, and you’re permanently out of all ministry,” he says. In Chicago, since then, “we have never had somebody with a substantiated allegation in ministry.”

However they are classified or tracked, the sheer number of substantiated abusers uncovered by the Illinois and Maryland reports is sobering.

That includes the infamous Daniel McCormack, he says. Mr. Geoly explains the Archdiocese’ of Chicago’s poor handling of Mr. McCormack as the result of a breakdown in internal processes that prevented accusations against Mr. McCormack—ordained in 1994, jailed and laicized in 2007—from being “substantiated” before his notorious return to ministry under the late Cardinal Francis George in 2005. But describing the McCormack case as an outlier will probably not reassure even the most fair-minded assessors of the archdiocese’s performance.

Therein lies the rub for church officials attempting to correct what they perceive as inherent unfairness about the continuing investigations: Anything said defending the church in the aftermath of such reports sounds like an attempt to diminish the harm or breadth of the decades-long scandal. Meanwhile the church’s own performance in some instances since the charter has left it open to new rounds of criticism.

Reporting the Truth

Peter Steinfels is the former editor of Commonweal magazine and a former religion reporter and columnist for The New York Times. He is the founder and former director, with his wife, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University. In 2018, he wrote a comprehensive, critical analysis of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s report, which Commonweal published in January 2019.

At the time he spoke to America, he was steeling himself to take on a thorough reading of the Illinois report and reserving judgment of it until then. But he does worry in general that such reports can be “destructive for the church.”

It is always salutary to be horrified afresh by these crimes, Mr. Steinfels says, “but I don’t think we’re learning anything particularly new.” He questions the usefulness of sweeping claims lumping together distinct eras, varying institutional practices and several generations of bishops in an undifferentiated indictment of “the church.”

“The media doesn’t do its job on this, and the Catholic press does not do its job.”

Who, he wonders, is performing the hard work of analyzing the claims and accusations included in attorney general or grand jury reports? “The bishops are in no position to really examine and publicly raise any questions,” Mr. Steinfels says. “Their first responsibilities are pastoral; they need to in no way seem to be increasing the pain of survivors, nor say anything that might [seem to] rationalize or justify sex abuse of minors, or of any kind” of abuse.

And if bishops are unable to speak freely about potential mischaracterizations or misinterpretations of secular investigations—and the scorching response to Cardinal Cupich’s attempt to challenge some of the attorney generals’ findings suggest that assessment is accurate—who can perform that role?

“The media doesn’t do its job on this, and the Catholic press does not do its job,” Mr. Steinfels said, adding that everyone, it seems, is too ready to rebuke contemporary U.S. Catholic bishops.

He says the most serious impact of the attorney general reports “is that it convinces Catholics that the extent of sex abuse is still going on and that nothing has changed.”

The idea of what constitutes a cover-up has “become utterly elastic,” Mr. Steinfels says.

“I think a lot of [Catholics] just have not registered the fact that since the 1970s, the amount of sexual abuse has precipitously declined,” he says. “And since 2002, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops belatedly grappled with its record on abuse and set new policies to protect children, the record in terms of dealing with allegations, though never perfect, is really pretty good.

The reports should encourage contemporary Catholics “to find out what is happening in their parish and diocese today and to begin to ask questions if they have concerns.”

“Who’s to say that?” Mr. Steinfels asks. “The bishops cannot…. My old-fashioned attachment to truth makes me disturbed by that.”

A Report Worth Embracing?

Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, has probably made his way more deeply through the march of prosecutors’ and grand jury reports than anyone else in the country. He believes the latest from Illinois is the best he has read so far—“streets ahead of most of the others.”

He knows that most Catholics will probably not have the time, energy or emotional endurance for it, but he believes it would be a shame if they completely missed the Illinois analysis, which he describes as uniquely attentive to Catholic and diocesan sensibilities, written by a team that seems to grasp how dioceses actually work.

The Illinois investigators “really have talked in a very careful way at length with survivors,” Mr. McKiernan says. “They have visited each of the chancelleries, sat down with the documents…and, unusually, they have actually interacted with diocesan officials in a very nuanced way.”

The report’s authors indeed take careful note to acknowledge the degree of cooperation investigators received from the Illinois dioceses, particularly the Archdiocese of Chicago. They offer praise for policy shifts they believed were useful and constructive criticism for policies and decisions they found wanting. Investigators cite church documents and quotations from Cardinal Cupich—even Pope Francis—as they build a grueling narrative of the crisis toward a section of specific and individualized recommendations on policy and practice in each diocese.

Mr. McKiernan finds some merit in Mr. Steinfels’s criticism of the Pennsylvania grand jury report’s tendency to reinforce a misleading historical narrative of the abuse crisis. But he believes the Illinois study, which incorporates the church’s own historical framing, answers “the Steinfels-type question” of how to depict the arc of the crisis.

“I can’t control how people read the report,” Mr. McKiernan says, but “it said explicitly that there was a bad period during which terrible things were done,” then a post-Dallas period of improving standards and practices, and finally that “there still remains work to be done.”

"This is a thoughtful and well done report."

For his part, Mr. McKiernan regrets the combative tone taken by Cardinal Cupich immediately after the document was released and what he argues is a missed opportunity for the church in general. “I think that this was a report to embrace,” he says.

“In my view, the way to approach this report if you’re Cupich and the other ordinaries is: ‘This is a thoughtful and well done report, and there are recommendations—we obviously can’t accept them in a blanket way, but we’re going to work with this. We want to improve things.’”

Study but Verify

Kathleen McChesney is a former detective and former F.B.I. executive, and the first executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child Protection. Despite the grim stories and the depressing news accounts that follow the release of each of these state findings, Ms. McChesney remains confident that the dysfunctional hierarchies they depict are becoming impossible to find in the post-charter church. Now, “throughout the country, nearly every diocese and many, if not most, of the religious communities have procedures [to protect children] in place,” she says.

In recent years, dioceses and religious orders around the country have shown a greater willingness to reveal what had been hidden in archives and secret files that traced the internal adjudication of abuse claims and outcomes of internally managed investigations. To Ms. McChesney, this is important evidence of progress on disclosure and transparency; but to Mr. McDonnell of SNAP, progress is not coming fast enough and only coming at all precisely because of the intervention of secular entities like the attorneys general.

The Illinois report traces the scandal back to 1950; the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation report went back 70 years, he points out. “Why is it now, 2023, that we’re just really learning all about this?” he asks. “They’ve held on to these records; known abusers have been transferred time and time again. What makes us now believe that they’re doing better?”

To Mr. McDonnell, the reports demonstrate that dioceses and bishops “have not quite met the mark” on transparency and accountability and need to be monitored more closely. The bottom line, he suggests, for long-suffering Catholics—people not trying to deny the historical record but who may be weary of revisiting it—is that the effort remains worth accepting.

“Take in the pain,” Mr. McDonnell says, but “please take it a little bit at a time because it absolutely will affect you physically, mentally and spiritually.”

“Read it, but look at what’s happening today,” Ms. McChesney advises. “Put the two together.” The reports should encourage contemporary Catholics “to find out what is happening in their parish and diocese today and to begin to ask questions if they have concerns.”

“I think that’s what should be a big takeaway,” she says. “Be very interested, be very curious and evaluate for yourself: What does this really mean? What does it mean now?”

Back at St. Anthony’s, Barbara Daly remains frustrated and angry about the scandal and “every bishop that covered up; every bishop that moved [abusive priests]; every bishop that turned a blind eye.”

For her and other church workers “in the trenches,” those decisions “cut the feet out from under the work that the church really is here for.”

Every time she hears of another diocese declaring bankruptcy to manage its costs related to abuse settlements, she finds herself wondering: “What else is not being done?… What about education, hospitals, schools, caring for the poor? That money would have gone there.”

Prosecutors and investigators will continue to do their jobs and issue their reports, Ms. Daly says, and the church should not shy away from whatever truth is revealed in them.

“But I want people to be thoughtful,” she says. “Do not make knee-jerk reactions. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t decide that the entire church is a worthless endeavor.”

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