Pennsylvania Report Alleges Child Sex Abuse by More Than 300 Priests
New York Correspondent : Catholic officials in Pennsylvania systematically covered up the molestation of more than 1,000 children by more than 300 priests over the past 70 years, according to a report released Tuesday on one of the most exhaustive investigations into the church’s sex-abuse scandal.
The scathing, 884-page grand-jury report details widespread abuse of boys and girls dating to the 1940s that it said shows a chronic failure by six of the eight Pennsylvania dioceses to protect young victims. Prior grand-jury reports found evidence of abuse in the two other dioceses, in Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown area.
“The abuse scarred every diocese. The coverup was sophisticated. And all the while, church leadership kept records of the abuse,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference. The attorney general’s office launched the inquiry in 2016.
Mr. Shapiro, a Democrat, called it “the largest, most comprehensive report into child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church ever produced in the United States.” He said it builds on investigations dating back more than a decade that exposed clergy sex abuse in Boston and Philadelphia.
Tuesday’s report, combined with the previous two, amounts to the biggest statewide investigation of sex abuse in the church. In 2002, the Boston Globe reported that the Boston Archdiocese had systematically covered up clerical sex abuse and repeatedly moved offending priests to other parishes where they were able to abuse again. Mr. Shapiro said the Globe identified 229 “abuser priests,” revelations that led to Archbishop Bernard Law’s resignation.
Chad C. Pecknold, a professor at the Catholic University of America, said the scale of this investigation—and the number of Catholic clergymen who were found to be culpable—set it apart from previous accounts of abuse within the church. “Previously, everyone understood that abuse was rampant, and that the church worked hard to try to resolve the problem,” Mr. Pecknold said. “What was not clear before, and is clear now, is how many bishops worked just as hard to cover things up.”
The findings, Mr. Shapiro said, came largely from records kept by the dioceses. The files document allegations and admissions of abuse, he said, “corroborating accounts of victims and illustrating the organized coverup by senior church officials that stretched in some cases all the way to the Vatican.”
The Pennsylvania grand jury’s report said the roughly two-year inquiry found that bishops in the dioceses kept abuse complaints in “secret archives” locked in their offices, and that church officials regularly placed priests in ministry even after learning of allegations against them.
Many of the accused priests and other church officials named in the report are deceased. The names of some of those still alive are redacted in the report, under an order by the state Supreme Court.
Mr. Shapiro cited cases where investigations into complaints had been halted by a diocese to delay a case beyond a statute of limitations, or in one instance by a prosecutor to avoid negative publicity.
The Allentown Diocese said the allegations of abuse in the report are “abhorrent and tragic.”
“We apologize to everyone who has been hurt by the past actions of some members of the clergy,” the diocese said. “We know that these past actions have caused pain and mistrust for many people. The victims and survivors of abuse are in our prayers daily.”
Earlier this month, the Harrisburg Diocese, one of the six investigated, released the names of 71 priests and other church personnel accused of child-sex abuse, and its bishop detailed measures aimed at protecting youth.
The investigation into the six dioceses has led to criminal charges against two priests who are no longer in active ministry. One pleaded guilty last month to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy. The other is charged with molesting two boys over years and has pleaded not guilty. That case is pending.
In one example from the report, a priest in the Allentown Diocese, when confronted about an abuse complaint, admitted to sexually molesting a boy and said, “Please help me.” According to the report, “the diocese concluded that ‘the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma’ for the victim, and that the family should just be given ‘an opportunity to ventilate.’ ”
One allegation that a priest forced a 9-year-old boy to perform oral sex and then rinsed the boy’s mouth out with holy water was found credible by prosecutors, but the abuse was outside the statute of limitations. Another priest admitted to raping a girl decades earlier, including when she was 7 and recovering in a hospital from having her tonsils removed.
Several victims who spoke to the grand jury about allegations of abuse praised the investigation.
“There’s no doubt it’s been a complete coverup across all churches and dioceses,” said Jim VanSickle, a 55-year-old life coach and tutor in Pittsburgh. Mr. VanSickle came forward in February with allegations of being groped between 1979 and 1982 by a priest who was his English teacher at a Catholic high school.
The priest is one of the two currently facing criminal charges for more recent allegations. Although the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania bars any legal recourse for Mr. VanSickle, he said he hopes to testify in court against the priest.
The grand-jury report said almost every instance of abuse is too old to be prosecuted. Mr. Shapiro renewed a call for state lawmakers to abolish such restrictions. He said state investigators uncovered evidence of other sexual assaults but couldn’t file criminal charges due to the statute of limitations.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi said he hopes the grand-jury report will spur the Legislature to eliminate the statutes of limitations for filing civil cases and criminal charges in future abuse cases.
“These crimes were aided and abetted by the hierarchy that chose to protect the church’s assets and its reputation, instead of its children,” Mr. Rozzi, a Democrat, said.
He supports a measure that would create a two-year window for victims of past child sexual abuse to file civil suits. Strict limits currently apply. Mr. Rozzi, for example, said he was abused by a Catholic priest in the early 1980s, when he was 13 years old. At the time, victims had two years to file a civil claim, and prosecutors had five years to file charges.
Mr. Rozzi supports a bill that would eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations for future child sexual abuse cases. Currently in Pennsylvania, a person abused as a minor can sue a perpetrator until the victim turns 30, and prosecutors can bring criminal charges until the victim turns 50.
Mr. Rozzi and others have sought for years to change state law. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of the state’s 10 Catholic bishops and dioceses, has opposed creating a window to sue for past abuse, arguing it is unconstitutional.
Dozens of individuals, mainly clergy members, sued to block the report’s release and successfully petitioned the high court to black out their names and any identifying information.
They claimed their reputations would be unfairly ruined if the report were released unaltered, and said they were denied a chance to testify before the grand jury.
The state Supreme Court ordered their names temporarily redacted so the public could see an interim version of the report until those legal challenges are resolved.
In 2016, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis conceded it protected a priest who was later convicted of sexually abusing children. The archdiocese made the admission as part of a deal to resolve criminal charges that it failed to safeguard children.
In 2015, Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Mo., resigned more than two years after he was convicted of failing to report a priest who had made child pornography. Bishop Finn waited several months before reporting the priest, who pleaded guilty to charges of child pornography and was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison.
More than 300 accused priests listed in Pennsylvania report on Catholic Church sex abuse