Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
The Pennsylvania Grand Jury has delivered a searing moral indictment of the Catholic Church’s bishops and their chanceries for their historic cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. In Pennsylvania alone, more than a thousand victims were attacked by sexual predators in the clergy, and over the course of 70 years, many were denied justice by their own bishops. Some of the case files revealed that some predatory priests – including one young priest who recently took his own life – may have been victims of clerical sexual abuse themselves.
The scandal has particularly enmeshed Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who the Grand Jury singled out for an inconsistent application of his crackdown on priests who preyed on young people, while he was bishop in Pittsburgh. Cardinal Wuerl has been using the archdiocesan communications and news apparatus, including a now-deleted website called TheWuerlRecord.com, to vigorously defend his legacy on handling sex abuse in Pittsburgh.
One Pennsylvania bishop was actually singled out by the Grand Jury as an example of “hope” for the Catholic Church: Bishop Lawrence Persico of the Diocese of Erie. Besides launching an independent investigation into his own diocese, and publicly listing every cleric accused of sexual abuse, Bishop Persico did something none of the other bishops of a Pennsylvania did: he appeared in person before the Grand Jury, and actually listened to them voice the sorrow and outrage.
Bishop Persico has offered the U.S. bishops a real service by giving them a model for how to apologize. He delivered on Aug. 14 an actual, heartfelt apology to the men and women who were re-victimized by the bishops and chancery officials after reporting their sexual abuse, and were deprived of justice and healing up to the present day.
In this apology, Bishop Persico affirms victims have “suffered in darkness for a very long time” and experienced “unimaginably cruel behavior by the very individuals who should have had the greatest interest in protecting you.”
The bishop acknowledged that their lives have been profoundly altered unto the present day by their past sexual abuse – and he makes clear that none of the victims should feel they are responsible for their sexual abuse in any way.
Bishop Persico acknowledged in passing the progress the Erie diocese had made, but stated now was “not the moment to focus on our efforts.”
The address may prove helpful for archbishops and bishops who have focused more on when the allegations happened and the progress made since the 2002 Dallas Charter, rather than focus mainly on the countless victims who have been denied justice, over the course of decades and up to present day, by their own bishops and those working under them.
“Today, I simply stand before you, humbled and sorrowful,” he said.
Finally Bishop Persico outlines a 5-point plan of action, pledging transparency, cooperation between diocesan independent investigators and law enforcement, paying for counseling no matter how old the allegation of abuse or whether the victim still lives in the diocese, and his own personal pastoral support.
Statement from Bishop Lawrence Persico upon release of the 40th Statewide Grand Jury Report
Today, I want to express my sorrow directly to the victims of sexual abuse that occurred within the Diocese of Erie. You have suffered in darkness for a very long time.
As the grand jury report demonstrates, you have experienced unimaginably cruel behavior by the very individuals who should have had the greatest interest in protecting you. You were betrayed by people holding themselves out as servants of God, teachers of children or leaders in the community.
Each of you has your own story, with pain and grief that is unique to you. I do not presume to know the depth of the anguish you have experienced or the mixed emotions you may be feeling now that some of your stories have been made public. I do know that the consequences of sexual abuse can profoundly affect many aspects of life, from mental health and relationships, to employment and even faith in God.
Many of you say you continue to feel guilty for what occurred. I want to assure you that you are not responsible, in any way, for what happened to you.
I admire those of you who were able to come forward and testify. It surely took courage. I also understand those who did not feel able or ready to come forward in this way. As I said, each of you is on your own journey.
And so, I humbly offer my sincere apology to each victim who has been violated by anyone affiliated with the Catholic Church. I hope that you can accept it. I know that apologizing is only one step in a very long and complex process of healing.
You may be aware that we recently unveiled new policies and implemented procedures to ensure that this criminal behavior is stopped. We just released another update of our website today, adding names in light of the grand jury report. This is one sign of our commitment to transparency.
But this is not the moment to focus on our efforts. Today, I simply stand before you, humbled and sorrowful.
I know the abuse you endured continues to cause great pain in your lives and in the lives of those who love you. Because of the report, the public will begin to understand your pain in a new way. The men and women who served on the grand jury have spent two years listening to your stories. I am grateful for their service on this difficult assignment.
The grand jury has challenged us as a Catholic diocese to put victims first and to continue to improve ways to protect children and youth. We have heard that challenge, we acknowledge it, and we accept it. Today, I pledge to victims:
- The Diocese of Erie will not shroud abusers in secrecy—no matter who they are or how long ago the abuse occurred. We acknowledge the abuses of the past and are committed to being transparent with our decisions going forward.
- Allegations of abuse will always be turned over to the proper authorities for investigation. We plan to continue providing law enforcement with details through our own independent investigations as well.
- We will continue to publicize and provide counseling and related resources that are available to help you heal.
- We understand it can take time to come forward and report abuse. The Diocese of Erie offers to pay for counseling of abuse victims, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred or whether victims still live within the Diocese of Erie or not.
- I am willing to meet with any victim who wishes to meet with me and offer any pastoral support that I can.
Finally, I know the whole community is being deeply affected by the release of this report, and that people will respond in many different ways. As the leader of the Catholic Church in northwest Pennsylvania, I invite the faithful to join me in turning to God in this moment of darkness. Prayer must be one aspect of our response to the grand jury report. Therefore, I have asked all of our pastors to open the doors of their churches from 7 am to 7 pm on Saturday, September 15—the feast of Our Mother of Sorrows.
I invite all people to make time on that day to visit a church. Out of respect for each individual, I simply ask that you spend some quiet time there in prayer. You may want to pray for victims. You may be a victim yourself and wish to use the time to pray for healing. You may want to pray that the leaders of the church renew their commitment to Christian discipleship, providing strong moral leadership. You may want to pray for the grace and faith you need in your own life at this time. However you are inspired by the Holy Spirit, I invite you to come and pray.
We have much work to do to rebuild trust, in a church where leaders have failed. I commit myself and this diocese to assist in healing for victims and, in fact, for the wider community.