Report Reveals Widespread Sexual Abuse By Over 300 Priests In Pennsylvania

Aug 14, 2018
Originally published on August 15, 2018 12:38 pm

Updated at 4:33 p.m. ET

A long-awaited grand jury investigation into clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania was released Tuesday in an interim redacted form. The report detailed decades of alleged misconduct and cover-ups in six of the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses.

The roughly 900-page report, not including exhibits, is thought to be the most comprehensive of its kind and paints a horrid portrait of activity that occurred in the dioceses of Scranton, Allentown, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Erie and Pittsburgh, implicating 300 "predator priests" statewide who committed "criminal and/or morally reprehensible conduct."

One priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg abused five sisters in a single family. Another, in the Diocese of Greensburg, impregnated a 17-year-old girl, married her, then divorced her months later.

A priest in the Diocese of Erie admitted to assaulting at least a dozen boys, yet was later thanked by the bishop for "all that you have done for God's people."

The grand jury said it reviewed a half-million pages of internal church documents and "secret archives" that were readily available to bishops. It found credible allegations by more than 1,000 victims, but it added, "We believe that the real number ... is in the thousands."

The findings revealed a pattern of abuse that occurred in hundreds of parishes in 54 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties going back at least 80 years. It detailed how fellow clergy members conducted shoddy investigations into sexual abuse allegations and how bishops often sided with abusive priests.

"The pattern was abuse, deny and cover up," said state Attorney General Josh Shapiro at a press conference in Harrisburg on Tuesday. He described a "systematic cover-up" and a "failure of law enforcement."

The at-times-scathing report described a pattern of abuse that has never been seen "on this scale."

"Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability. 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. Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal."

The report counted 41 "predator priests" in the Diocese of Erie, 37 in Allentown, 20 in Greensburg, 45 in Harrisburg, 99 in Pittsburgh, and 59 in Scranton.

Abuse in the Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown dioceses have been covered in previous reports.

The report noted that the state was not immune from the global sex abuse scandal in the church, saying, "For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere."

The interim report was released just before the 2 p.m. deadline the state Supreme Court gave its appointed special master to sort out disputes regarding the redactions.

A majority of the activity described within the scathing investigation falls outside of Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for sexual crimes, and those clergy members both named and currently blacked out of the report are not expected to face criminal charges.

But the grand jury issued presentments against a priest in the Greensburg Diocese and a priest in the Erie Diocese, who it said had sexually assaulted children within the past decade.

In the wake of Shapiro's press conference, several of the diocese released statements.

"Sadly, abuse still is part of the society in which we live. We acknowledge our past failures, and we are determined to do what is necessary to protect the innocent, now and in the future," wrote Allentown Diocese Bishop Alfred A. Schlert.

Named prominently in the report is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 through 2006.

The grand jury found that Wuerl allegedly shuffled around abusive priests and failed to inform church officials in other states of priests who were moved there after facing sexual abuse allegations in the Pittsburgh Diocese.

In a letter to priests late Monday, Wuerl said he acted to protect children after learning about allegations of sexual abuse.

"It moved me not simply to address these acts, but to be fully engaged, to meet with survivors and their families, and to do what I could to bring them comfort and try to begin a process for healing," Wuerl wrote, saying he imposed a "zero tolerance" policy for clergy sex abuse.

When Wuerl came to Pittsburgh, he replaced then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua, who went on to become Archbishop of Philadelphia, where another grand jury said he had protected abusive priests. Bevilacqua died in 2012.

What's next?

In this interim report, the grand jury made a list of recommendations, including eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. It also called for a "civil window" law, which would give victims a two-year period to file civil charges retroactively.

"We saw these victims; they are marked for life. Many of them wind up addicted, or impaired, or dead before their time," wrote the grand jury.

In Pennsylvania, a victim of child sex abuse who turned 18 after Aug. 27, 2002, has until age 50 to file criminal charges. Those who turned 18 before that date can no longer bring a criminal case. For civil charges, child victims have until their 30th birthday to file, no matter when the abuse occurred.

Advocates for victims have long pushed to amend these statutes. They want to raise the age for civil filings and to abolish limitations on criminal charges, likening sexual abuse to murder.

They've also called for "window" legislation that would give victims a brief period to file civil charges retroactively.

Facing stiff opposition from groups such as the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, pieces of legislation advancing such measures haven't found consensus.

Long legal battle

The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury was convened in 2016 in an investigation led by the Pennsylvania attorney general. Tuesday's redacted report came after months of legal battles challenging its release.

It was initially slated for public view at the end of June but was delayed after a group of unnamed current and former clergy filed objections claiming that publishing the report would violate their due process rights.

Attorneys for the clergy said the state should not be able to name or implicate individuals without charging them with a crime or allowing them to challenge evidence and cross-examine witnesses. As is typical in grand jury proceedings, the clergy members had been invited to file a written response to the report.

In response to objections from clergy, the state Supreme Court stayed the report's release to allow more time for appeals.

Nine news outlets — including NPR member station WHYY, the lead station of Keystone Crossroads — and the state attorney general's office then pushed to make the report public, even if only in a redacted form.

Shapiro called the clergy's appeals a "desperate attempt to stop the public from learning the truth about their abhorrent conduct" and said he opposes giving clergy the option to essentially rewrite the report "in accordance with their preferred view of the facts."

Norman Krumenacker III, the Cambria County judge who presided over the grand jury investigation, also disagreed with the clergy and pushed for an unredacted report to be released.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Krumenacker's logic was flawed. It argued that the state constitution compels the court to put a high premium on an individual's right to reputation. In a July 27 order, the high court agreed with an alternate plan proposed by the media intervenors and decided a version that redacted the names of the objectors would be released by mid-August.

Hearings to decide whether the complaints by individual clergy members are valid will be held in September in Philadelphia.

The group of unnamed challengers said even a redacted version would violate grand jury secrecy rules, because it includes specific facts from the report and "would impermissibly lift the cloak of anonymity they have been afforded."

The legal battle has sparked a debate over Pennsylvania's use of grand jury proceedings, in which 23 jurors meet in private to sort through potential evidence on complicated crimes or issues of public importance.

Prosecutors say such proceedings can help develop particularly difficult cases and bring to light issues that would otherwise remain hidden. Critics say the process should not be used to identify and criticize individuals who haven't been charged with crimes.

This story was jointly reported by stations WHYY and WITF.

Copyright 2018 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We begin this hour with a report of widespread clergy sex abuse in Catholic churches throughout Pennsylvania. A grand jury investigation released today gives details on 301 priests who allegedly abused more than 1,000 children. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro says the abuse and the cover-up went all the way up to the Vatican.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH SHAPIRO: There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church but never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else. Now we know the truth. It happened everywhere.

CORNISH: For more on this investigation, we turn to Katie Meyer of member station WITF. And a warning - we will be discussing some disturbing details. Katie joins us from Harrisburg. And, Katie, what more can you tell us just about the scope of this and the time span?

KATIE MEYER, BYLINE: Sure. So the grand jury spent about two years looking into these allegations. It covered six dioceses across Pennsylvania, and the instances of abuse date back to the 1940s. The grand jury also says it thinks there are significantly more than the 1,000 victims it named because the cover-ups were so widespread and so thorough.

CORNISH: What details have you learned about these allegations?

MEYER: So in every one of the diocese, there are some really graphic stories of abuse. And one that was particularly striking was in Pittsburgh. There were - there was a case there. At least four priests forced at least one underage boy to pose naked on a bed in the rectory and pose as Christ on the cross. They took pictures of him, and they shared them amongst themselves on church grounds. This was part of a collection of child pornography that the priests kept. And there were other specific stories, too. Some of them were more shocking than that one.

CORNISH: So the report actually names these priests as abusers. Does it identify anyone else?

MEYER: Yes. So there are a number of higher-ranking church officials that are in here. This includes monsignors. There are bishops, assistant bishops. There are cardinals. The attorney general noted there were a couple officials who were promoted during and after they covered up abuse. And one of those, high-profile Cardinal Donald Wuerl - he served as the bishop of Pittsburgh at the time, and he's now the archbishop of Washington, D.C.

CORNISH: Now, I understand there were also a number of people who said they didn't want this report released. Tell us who they were.

MEYER: So about a dozen anonymous clergy members petitioned the state Supreme Court to block the report from coming out. They said they were named in the investigation, and so by doing that, it denied them due process 'cause they hadn't been charged with a crime. The state Supreme Court did want the report to come out, but it said it would release a redacted version, so it blacked out some names.

CORNISH: Katie, much of this abuse happened years ago, and we know that the statute of limitations can run out on prosecution. How is that being addressed in this case?

MEYER: The attorney general says in any case where the statute of limitations hasn't expired, prosecutions are underway now. But the report makes a number of recommendations to change state law so more prosecution can happen when the clock has already run out. So the state could, if it chooses, open up a two-year window for people whose abuse is outside of the statute of limitations. But it's unclear if that will happen. There's been some significant pushback from lawmakers who say that would be unfair to the Catholic Church and could bankrupt churches.

CORNISH: Reporter Katie Meyer of member station WITF, thank you.

MEYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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