Catholic Church in US accused of decades-long abuse cover-up

‘Hundreds of priests’ involved in abuse of more than 1,000 identifiable victims in Pennsylvania

A Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The church   covered up child sexual abuse by hundreds of priests in the state over a period of 70 years, a report has found. Photograph: Jeff Swensen/New York Times

A Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The church covered up child sexual abuse by hundreds of priests in the state over a period of 70 years, a report has found. Photograph: Jeff Swensen/New York Times

 

Bishops and other leaders of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over a period of 70 years, persuading victims not to report the abuse and police officers not to investigate it, according to a report issued by a grand jury on Tuesday.

The report, which said there were more than 1,000 identifiable victims and covered six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses, is the broadest examination yet by a government agency in the United States of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

There have been ten previous reports by grand juries and attorneys general in the United States, according to the research and advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, but those examined single dioceses or counties.

Victims expressed relief that the attorney general, Josh Shapiro, and his agents had conducted the investigation, after the victims’ efforts to get church officials to take action went nowhere.

“I had gone to two bishops with allegations over five years, and they ignored and downplayed my allegations,” said the Rev. James Faluszczak, an Erie priest on extended leave who was abused as a child and who testified before the grand jury. “It’s that very management of secrets that has given cover to predators.”

There has been no comprehensive measurement of the full scope of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the United States, though some have tried. American abuse survivors have pushed for years for the government to undertake a nationwide inquiry similar to the one conducted in Australia, where a royal commission spent four years examining the sexual abuse of children by a variety of religious and civic institutions, including the Catholic Church.

Independent investigations

The Pennsylvania grand jury report comes as the sex abuse scandal in the church has reached a new stage, with calls to discipline bishops who sexually abused younger priests and seminarians, or who have covered up for abusive colleagues.

US Catholics are calling for independent investigations into why Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was advanced up the hierarchy despite warnings to his superiors in Rome and fellow bishops that he had molested seminarians and young priests.

Cardinal McCarrick resigned in July over allegations of sexually abusing minors, but since then priests in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and seminarians in Boston and elsewhere have publicly accused their superiors of turning a blind eye to sexual misconduct.

The Pennsylvania grand jury met for two years and heard testimony from victims and the bishop of Erie. The report covers the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Two dioceses – Greensburg and Harrisburg – tried to quash the grand jury investigation last year, but later backed off that stance.

No other US state has seen more grand jury investigations of abuses in the church than Pennsylvania, where about one of every four residents is Catholic and the local attorneys general have been particularly responsive to victims. Previous grand juries examined the dioceses of Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown; the new report covers the rest of the state.

Little if any of the evidence unearthed by the report is likely to lead to any criminal charges. The Pennsylvania State Legislature has so far resisted calls to lift the statute of limitation that has prevented childhood victims from filing civil lawsuits against the church after they turn 30. For many victims, it has taken decades to gain the courage to speak about the abuse, long past when the law would allow them to sue.

Lists of accused

The church has lobbied against any change to the statute, with its effort led by Bishop Ronald W Gainer of Harrisburg, president of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. But abuse survivors and advocates say that in September they plan to begin a fresh campaign to press lawmakers and Bishop Gainer to drop their opposition.

“If this doesn’t start a serious debate on the elimination of the statute of limitation, there’s something seriously wrong with my fellow Pennsylvanians,” said Shaun Dougherty, now 48, who testified before the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury about being abused by a priest for three years starting at age 10.

About two dozen people named in the report petitioned the court to have their names redacted. One was the former bishop of the diocese of Erie, Donald W Trautman, who later dropped his objections; he has issued a response to the grand jury report.

The dioceses of Allentown, Greensburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton have pledged that after the grand jury report is released, they will release the names of all priests in their dioceses who are accused of sexually abusing minors. The Erie and Harrisburg dioceses have already posted lists of accused priests on their websites.

Bishop Gainer in Harrisburg recently ordered that the names of accused priests and of bishops who mishandled abuse cases be taken down from all church buildings in the diocese. – New York Times