HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Catholic priests across Pennsylvania used religious rituals, symbols of the faith and the threat of eternity in hell to groom, molest and rape children, a grand jury found, in what the state’s top prosecutor called the “weaponization of faith.”
An 884-page report on the statewide grand jury’s investigation, released Tuesday, detailed how “predator priests” used the children’s own religious faith and trust in them as religious leaders to victimize and then silence them.
One priest tied up a victim with rope in the confessional in a “praying position,” the grand jury wrote. When the victim refused to perform sex, the angered priest used a 7-inch crucifix to sexually assault him, the report said.
Another victim recounted how a priest used a metal cross to beat him.
At a parish rectory, the report said, four of the priests made a boy strip and pose as Jesus on the cross while they took photos.
“He stated that all of them giggled and stated that the pictures would be used as a reference for new religious statues for the parishes,” the jury wrote. Two of those priests later did jail time for sexually assaulting two altar boys.
Another priest told a boy he was fondling that it was OK because he was “an instrument of God.”
Priests also found in the sacrament of confession the opportunity to perpetrate acts against children, the report said.
The investigation of six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses— Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton — is the most extensive investigation of Catholic clergy abuse by any state, according to victims’ advocates. More than 1,000 children — and possibly many more — were molested since the 1940s, the report said.
The dioceses represent about 1.7 million Catholics.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Johnstown-Altoona Diocese were not included in the probe because they have been the subject of three previous scathing grand jury investigations.
Diocese leaders on Tuesday expressed sorrow for the victims and unveiled, for the first time, a list of priests accused of some sort of sexual misconduct.
“Predators in every diocese weaponized the Catholic faith and used it as a tool of their abuse,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference Tuesday unveiling the grand jury’s report, which documented allegations against 301 priests over seven decades.
Only two of the priests have been charged with crimes as a result of the grand jury investigation, though a number were prosecuted in years past. Over 100 have died, and many others have retired.
Church leaders say most of the offenses occurred some time in the past and note that major reforms were adopted starting in 2002 to safeguard children.
Terence McKiernan, president of the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, said the ritualization of abuse was a fundamental part of how children were sexually exploited.
“Even when the Catholic rituals and doctrines are not specifically mobilized by the priest, they are in play,” he said.
Threats of eternal damnation were not uncommon, the grand jury found. Priests told children they would “go to hell” if they told anyone what happened and “nobody would believe a lying child over a man of God’s word.”
One priest was quoted as telling altar boys they should serve naked beneath their cassocks “because God did not want any man-made clothes to be worn next to their skin during Mass,” the jury wrote.
In one church, a priest told a boy who confided he had been gang-raped as a 7-year-old that he had to provide sex to get to heaven. He would then be molested for three years before the priest was transferred.
In a case highlighted on the day the grand jury report was made public, a priest rinsed a boy’s mouth with holy water after abusing him.
The predator priests used any opportunity they could to molest children while they had them alone, the investigation found. Several priests used hypnosis during counseling sessions to manipulate their victims. Helping a priest grade papers in his rectory somehow became a session of nude weightlifting. One boy was abused when he went to collect his report card from school.
When a bishop asked the Vatican to remove a priest who used physical force and threats to abuse children, the bishop noted the priest “invoked the name of God to justify his actions against his victims while using their faith and the priesthood to manipulate them and secure their silence.” Parishioners were never told why he was removed in 2006.
The grand jurors pointedly wrote that the investigation was not an attack on the faith, noting many are Catholics themselves.
“People of all faiths and of no faith want their children to be safe,” the grand jurors wrote. “But we were presented with a conspicuous concentration of child sex abuse cases that have come from the Church.”