A long-awaited report detailing decades of child sexual abuse and cover-up in Pennsylvania has finally been released, issuing a searing condemnation of the response of the Church to abuse allegations, saying they shielded abusers for decades.
The report, widely considered to be one of the most comprehensive investigations into clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is the result of the 40th Statewide Grand Jury investigation and identifies more than 300 abuser priests going back to 1947. Most cases happened before the early 2000s.
It was released Aug. 14 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last month that large portions of it be made public.
The grand jury noted that other reports have been released on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, “but never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
After subpoenaing and reviewing half a million pages of internal diocesan documents and interviewing dozens of victims on the record, the jury found credible allegations of more than 300 “predator priests” in six dioceses that were investigated.
More than 1,000 child victims were identified from the Church’s own records, however, based on their findings the jury believes the real number “is in the thousands,” since some records have been lost and other victims were afraid to come forward.
The six dioceses – Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton – combined serve more than 1.7 million Catholics.
The report did not cover the Archdiocese of Philadelphia or the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which had been investigated previously. The grand jury also did not investigate the Eastern Rite Catholic jurisdictions headquartered in Pennsylvania.
The grand jury began investigating allegations of child sex crimes by Catholic priests in the dioceses in 2016. The 900-page report was sent to diocesan officials in May. However, its publication has been delayed due to challenges from priests and former priests who argue that revealing the names of all those accused could damage their reputations.
In response, the court ruled that a redacted version could be released with the names of those challenging the report blacked out, but the bulk of the investigation’s findings would be made public.
Included in the report are the names of those who were credibly accused of abuse, the details of where and when those people served, whether they continued to serve after the allegations were first made, and whether they are still in service.
Some of the people named, for one reason or another, are still in active ministry. Others have either died or were never charged because offenses took place outside of the state’s statute of limitations, which allows criminal charges only until a victim’s 50th birthday.
The report also contains details of the response of dioceses and the failure of certain bishops to act.
According to the report, most of the victims were boys and were pre-pubescent when their abuse took place, and some were manipulated with the use of alcohol or pornography. There was a wide range of the type of abuse victims endured, but in every case, “all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by Church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.”
Almost every instance of abuse the jury found is too old to be prosecuted “as a consequence of the cover-up,” they said, “but that is not to say there are no more predators.”
In the lead up to the report’s publication, at least two priests, one each in the Greensburg and Erie dioceses, have been criminally charged as part of the probe.
In Erie, the priest is Father David Poulson, 64, who has been suspended from his priestly duties as he prepares to face trial for sexually molesting two boys over the course of several years. In Greensburg, the priest is Father John Sweeney, 75, who on July 31 pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a 10-year-old boy during the 1991-92 school year. He stayed in ministry for 16 years after the abuse, moving to several different parish assignments. He was indicted last year.
The grand jury’s report found that in each of the six dioceses investigated, “the main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal,’” and to do this, complaints were kept in a “secret archive” that only the bishop had access to. According to analysis carried out by the FBI, bishops, they said, almost unanimously operated as if there had been “a playbook for concealing the truth.”
While in some cases allegations were handled correctly, for the most part dioceses failed to suspend priests accused of abuse, instead sending them to treatment centers for “evaluation,” and failing to inform law enforcement. Dioceses also failed to inform the public of the true reasons whenever a priest stepped down from ministry due to abuse, making excuses such as needing time for “sick leave.”
However, the report also noted that while setting the historical record straight is important, progress has been made in the past 15 years.
After hearing from each of the six dioceses investigated about recent developments in child protection, the jury said “it appears that the Church is now advising law enforcement of abuse reports more promptly. Internal review processes have been established. Victims are no longer quite so invisible.”
However, the crisis, they said, is far from over.
Ahead of the report’s release, the dioceses of Harrisburg and Erie released the names of priests, laity and religious accused of abusing minors.
In April, Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie published a list of some 67 names of people, both living and dead, who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, some of whom are currently under investigation or are awaiting trial. The list, which has been updated, includes priests, laity and religious who face allegations.
On Aug. 1 the bishop of Harrisburg, Ronald Gainer, released the names of 71 people who have been accused of child sexual abuse. Of those, 37 were priests of the diocese, six were seminarians, nine were priests from other dioceses and 16 were from religious communities.
In an unprecedented move, Gainer the same day issued a decree declaring that anyone who has been accused of sexually abusing a minor would have their name removed “from any position of honor throughout the diocese.”
Furthermore, Gainer ordered that the name of every bishop who has led the diocese since 1947 be removed from “any building, facility or room in the diocese.”
In the grand jury’s findings for Erie, the largest area investigated, 41 offenders were identified. In Greensburg, there were 20; in Harrisburg, 45; in Allentown, 37; in Scranton 59, and in Pittsburgh, 99.
Each diocesan section included three emblematic cases which the jury said illustrate “the wholesale institutional failure that endangered the welfare of children” in Pennsylvania.
The report highlighted almost collective failure on the part of bishops and diocesan administrators who knew of abuse allegations against clergy and religious, but regularly placed abusers back into ministry. It also found that at times, bishops or administrators failed to report abuse to civil authorities, and also sought to dissuade victims from going to law enforcement, or to drop civil cases.
Many abusers, the report said, were “regularly placed in ministry” by bishops or diocesan administrators after being made aware of abuse allegations against the priests or religious in question.
The report highlighted cases in which victims had repeatedly attempted to bring allegations forward to ecclesial or diocesan officials but were either ignored or discredited while their abusers got off the hook either through parish transfers or retirement, often with benefits.
Among the big names getting heat from the report is Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who despite demonstrating an awareness of the serious criminal nature of abuse and at times writing to the Vatican about his concerns, allowed abuser priest Father Ernest Paone, ordained in 1957 and active until 2001, to be transferred despite a history of accusations beginning in the early 1960s.
The report also highlighted correspondence between ecclesial authorities about Paone’s case, but none of them reported the piling accusations to civil law enforcement.
When Paone finally retired in 2001, nearly 41 years after the first accusation of sexual abuse had been brought forward, Wuerl, the report said, wrote a letter assuring the priest that “sustenance needs and benefits will continue according to the norms of law.”
“In spite of Wuerl’s statements to the Vatican, the clear and present threat that Paone posed to children was hidden and kept secret from parishioners in three states. Wuerl’s statements had been meaningless without any action,” the report said.
In an Aug. 14 statement, Wuerl called child sexual abuse by clergy “a terrible tragedy,” saying the Church “can never express enough our deep sorrow and contrition for the abuse, and for the failure to respond promptly and completely.”
“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 said, and voiced hope that “a just assessment” of his past and present actions, as well as his commitment to protecting children, “will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report.”
The report also offered a series of recommendations for changes to the law.
After spending two years “dredging up the most depraved behavior, only to find that the laws protect most of its perpetrators, and leave its victims with nothing,” the jury asked that Pennsylvania change its statute of limitations, which currently only allows victims to come forward until the age of 50.
Noting how they heard from one victim who was 83-years-old, the jury requested that the statute be tossed completely. They also asked that a “civil window” law be created allowing victims over 30 to sue dioceses for damages inflicted on their lives as children. Current law allows child victims 12 years to sue once they turn 18, however, if the victim is already in their 30s then they only get two years.
Since these two years would have expired in the 1990s for most victims, before the institutional nature of cover-up had been discovered, the jury asked that a new, limited two-year window be opened allowing these older victims to sue.
The jury also asked for a change to legislation in reporting abuse, which currently penalizes a “continuing” failure to report, “but only if the abuse of ‘the child’ is ‘active.’” The jury said the wording in this law is unclear, and asked that the law be changed, clarifying that there is a duty to report an abuser “as long as there’s reason to believe he will do it again.”
They also pushed for more leniency with non-disclosure agreements, which they said had often been used to silence victims.
“No non-disclosure agreement can or should apply to criminal investigations,” the report said, adding that “if the subject of a civil lawsuit happens also to concern criminal activity, then a confidentiality agreement gives neither party either the right or the obligation to decline cooperation with law enforcement.”
In a statement following the report’s publication, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Timothy Doherty of Lafayette, Chairman for the USCCB’s Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said the report is an example of the pain suffered by those who have been abused by priests and by those who covered up.
As bishops, “we are shamed by and sorry for the sins and omissions by Catholic priests and Catholic bishops,” he said, and insisted that the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People and the office of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection will continue to offer paths to healing.
DiNardo and Doherty pledged to maintain transparency, remove abusers from ministry and provide safe environments for everyone in the Church.
“We pray that all survivors of sexual abuse find healing, comfort and strength in God’s loving presence as the Church pledges to continue to restore trust through accompaniment, communion, accountability and justice.”