[Content note: This post contains descriptions of sexual abuse of children.]
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has released the findings of a major new grand jury investigation into the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Even for atheists and others who are well aware of this scandal and the breadth of the church’s conspiracy to cover it up, there’s more than enough to rekindle outrage.
Previously, in “What the Catholic Church Did in the Shadows“, I wrote about another grand jury report that covered the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. The new report is far larger, covering six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses. It’s based on testimony from victims and previously secret church documents revealing what church superiors knew and when.
And what it reveals is a stomach-turning cesspool of corruption. There are allegations dating as far back as the 1940s, naming over 300 priests as child abusers. The grand jury’s report said that there are at least 1,000 victims, and likely many more who haven’t come forward out of shame or fear.
The grand jury’s findings from each diocese contain one nauseating detail after another: priests who tied up and whipped boys, who took pornographic photos of their victims, who performed oral sex on children as young as 7, who raped and impregnated girls (and in one case forced the victim to get an abortion), and on and on:
Those cases include a priest who the grand jury says raped a 7-year-old girl while visiting her in the hospital after she got her tonsils out. Another priest made a 9-year-old boy give him oral sex, “then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him.”
It’s hard to decide which of the stories are the most vile, although the one that’s stayed with me the most was the ring of pedophile clergy in the Pittsburgh diocese who’d give their victims a piece of distinctive jewelry, such as a large gold cross necklace, to mark them so that others would know they had been groomed: “They were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitized to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimization.”
You can see the shock washing over people who personally knew the predators and, in some cases, realized how narrow their escape was. One of my Patheos colleagues on the nonreligious channel wrote about discovering that her beloved childhood priest was one of the accused. Another commenter on Reddit wrote about how he grew up knowing several of the pedophile clergy, how some of his friends were molested, and how he likely escaped the same fate only because of an offhand remark from his father.
And in a familiar theme, the report makes clear that these weren’t isolated cases of individual priests preying on children. The church as an institution aided and abetted them. Pedophile clergy were sheltered and protected by bishops and other church officials who knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it. The priests’ superiors shuffled them from district to district so they could continue preying on children elsewhere, or let them go quietly into retirement with pensions.
In many cases, the church paid off victims in exchange for them signing confidentiality agreements – “payouts sealed by silence”, as the grand jury put it. (You can’t legally make a binding contract not to report a crime – any court would void such a contract as against public policy – but it has the same effect if the victims didn’t know that.)
The church went so far as to influence police and prosecutors to protect its own:
The report alleges that Robert Masters, former district attorney of Beaver County, sent a letter to Bishop Vincent Leonard of the Pittsburgh Diocese in 1964 advising him he had “halted all investigations” into similar sexual abuse charges “in order to prevent unfavorable publicity.”
The grand jury report sums it up:
Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.
…The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid “scandal.” That is not our word, but theirs; it appears over and over again in the documents we recovered. Abuse complaints were kept locked up in a “secret archive.” That is not our word, but theirs; the church’s Code of Canon Law specifically requires the diocese to maintain such an archive. Only the bishop can have the key.
Unfortunately, many of the crimes detailed in the report are too old to prosecute. Some of those responsible have died. But as the grand jury says, “We are going to name their names, and describe what they did – both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.”
In their recommendations section, they call for the statute of limitations to be lifted so that survivors of abuse can prosecute and sue predators who are still alive. They also call for improvements in the law to clarify that church officials are mandated reporters, with a legal duty to inform the police of any crime they become aware of.
The real question is what, if anything, the church has done or will do to stop this from happening again. Pope Francis has made some of the appropriate mouth noises about how sad this makes him and how sorry he is to hear about it all – but he’s said nothing to indicate that he intends to punish any bishops who masterminded the coverup or make any other concrete change to church policies. This report is unstintingly and appropriately critical in pointing out what he’s said and what he hasn’t:
Pope Francis vowed Monday that “no effort must be spared” to root out sex abuse by priests and cover-ups from the Catholic Church, but gave no indication that he would take action to sanction complicit bishops or end the Vatican culture of secrecy that has allowed the crisis to fester.
“We showed no care for the little ones,” Francis wrote. “We abandoned them.”
But Francis alone can sanction bishops and he offered no hint that he would change the Vatican’s longstanding practice of giving religious superiors a pass when they botch abuse cases or are negligent in protecting their flocks.
He said he was aware of the “effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world” to ensure children are protected and hold accountable those who commit abuse and cover it up.
But he made no reference to what the Vatican plans to do, saying only: “We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”
As this story points out, Pope Francis could command bishops all around the world to throw open their archives and reveal the names of any priest who’s been tried for child molestation in a church tribunal – but he hasn’t. He could also order them to stop opposing efforts to extend the statute of limitations (the bishop of the Harrisburg diocese is still lobbying against one such effort), but he hasn’t done that either.
In fact, the pope obliquely blamed Catholic laypeople for allowing all of this to happen, implying that it’s basically their fault for being so devoted to the church that they let priests get away with it:
He demanded an end to “clericalism” — the culture that places priests on a pedestal. He said lay Catholics must help end that culture, since rank-and-file Catholics are often the ones who most fervently hold up their priests as beyond reproach.
All I can say to that is, if the pope wants people to respect the Catholic church’s authority less and give less to support them, we hear you loud and clear.
And remember – all this is just from Pennsylvania. As widespread as the abuses were, as revolting and shocking as they were, this report only covers one U.S. state. How many more stories like it could we tell, if there were equally diligent investigations in the rest of the U.S. and elsewhere in the world? How many more clerical predators are out there, yet to be discovered? How many more evil secrets is the church keeping, in archives that have yet to be exposed to the light of day?