Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: A Reminder of the Toll of Failure


Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at an Aug. 14 press conference following the release of a grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at an Aug. 14 press conference following the release of a grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses. (photo: NBC Philadelphia)

The redacted grand jury report on the 70-year history of clergy sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses that was released by Attorney General Josh Shapiro Aug. 14 was expected, but it still proved horrifying.

Its impact extends well beyond the state of Pennsylvania, especially as it comes as the next terrible blow to Catholics still dealing with the scandal of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the ongoing lurid crises of sexual abuse, corruption and apparent spiritual and moral rot in Chile, Honduras and elsewhere.

The harrowing 1,356-page document is the result of the office of the attorney general’s investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg and Scranton. Two other Pennsylvanian dioceses — Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown — were spared only because they had been previously investigated.

The numbers speak for themselves: More than 300 priests in the six dioceses sexually abused a large number of minors over the span of seven decades. The number of victims is estimated at 1,000 at least, but it may actually be significantly higher. The report claims that the priest abusers were routinely shielded or moved by bishops and Church officials. 

“All of [the victims] were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by Church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all,” the grand jury wrote after reviewing about 1 million documents. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible not only did nothing: They hid it all.”

For their part, the Pennsylvania bishops responded with statements of apology and promises of healing and vigilance. Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, the lone bishop singled out positively by Shapiro, said, “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."


Historical Abuse 

The report was originally ordered to be made public by a judge back in June. However, more than two dozen clergy named in the report were able to block its publication on the grounds that it might violate their rights to due process and destroy their reputations.  On July 27, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the report to be revealed, but in a redacted form. 

Prior to the release, the dioceses of Harrisburg and Erie made public the names of the priests who were accused credibly of sex crimes. The other dioceses have pledged to do the same. The worst periods of abuse stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s, and while some of the victims were girls, the vast majority of victims were males ranging from prepubescent to young seminarians. Nearly one-third of the 300 accused priests were from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the largest group by far among the six dioceses in the investigation.

The grand jury report is the most ambitious study of abuse ever attempted by a state in the United States. Some will criticize the tone and the brutally descriptive recounting of victim accounts and many inaccuracies. The grand jurors, however, noted that they were unsatisfied by the few criminal charges that can be brought, and issuing the report was their only recourse. 

Few criminal cases will likely result from the investigation under current law because of the statutes of limitation. The report is thus likely to reignite efforts to change that, something recommended by the grand jurors, who also demanded that older victims have the right to sue a diocese for damages, better laws to mandate the reporting of abuse and ending all nondisclosure agreements attached to settlements.


The Shadow of Theodore McCarrick

The timing of the grand jury’s report could not be more grimly appropriate, given the massive scandal surrounding McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, who resigned from the College of Cardinals last month in the face of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and male adults. He has been ordered by Pope Francis to a life of prayer and penance and to face a canonical trial that could result in his forced laicization.

The scandal of Archbishop McCarrick had already raised disturbing questions about his rise to a position of immense influence and power and his ability to stay entrenched there despite alleged sexual misconduct and abuse of seminarians and priests under his authority that were allegedly known by other bishops. 

Even before the grand jury report, bishops across the country had been speaking and writing publicly about the disgraced archbishop and their own commitment to transparent accountability. Bishops Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, and Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, in particular, have been most blunt in their assessment of the situation.

“It is almost unbearable,“ Bishop McKnight wrote in the Catholic Missourian. “How could a brother bishop disrespect with such callousness the dignity of young boys, seminarians and priests over decades and no one called him on the carpet?”

It is an important question, and the grand jury report from Pennsylvania has now launched even more intense scrutiny of the bishops. And even as they have been trying to craft a response to Archbishop McCarrick that addresses demands from the faithful for greater episcopal accountability, the bishops have been forced to respond to the grand jury.

Citing the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that was created by the U.S. bishops to prevent abuse, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pledged again “to maintain transparency and to provide for the permanent removal of offenders from ministry and to maintain safe environments for everyone."

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, meanwhile, has found himself in the center of the media storm since the McCarrick story broke in June. Not only has his predecessor in the nation’s capital been forced out of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Wuerl was mentioned some 200 times — some of them critically — in the grand jury report for his tenure as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. On Tuesday afternoon, Cardinal Wuerl issued a statement, saying,  

As I have made clear throughout my more than 30 years as a bishop, the sexual abuse of children by some members of the Catholic Church is a terrible tragedy, and the Church can never express enough our deep sorrow and contrition for the abuse, and for the failure to respond promptly and completely. While I understand this report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse. I sincerely hope that a just assessment of my actions, past and present, and my continuing commitment to the protection of children will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report.


A Global Crisis

The grand jury report may have other potentially significant effects. First, it will encourage other states to look at their statutes of limitation. That means more lawsuits and possibly criminal charges for bishops who might be accused of negligence and even cover-ups. Second, other state officials might launch their own all-encompassing investigations into clergy sexual abuse. That means perhaps many more reports such as the one in Pennsylvania, with new revelations and more criticism of the bishops and the Church. 

The reports on a national scale in Ireland and Australia were devastating, but they also brought much to light that needed to be seen and understood if true reform were possible. Based on the experience elsewhere, of course, the grand jury report should also disabuse the bishops of any thought that the scandal is truly something only historical. Immense progress has been made in dealing with sexual abuse of prepubescent children, but the next phase is looking at the bishops and their responsibility and accountability. How they respond in the coming weeks and months will also determine significantly the future credibility of Catholicism in America.  

Who is ultimately responsible for policing the bishops raises a final issue emerging from the grand jury report. The scandal in Pennsylvania is but one small facet of the crisis facing the Church around the world over clergy sexual abuse, abuse of power, an active homosexual culture in seminaries, predatory prelates and widespread homosexual activity among the U.S. priesthood.  Pope Francis is facing pressure from Chile, Honduras, Australia, France and elsewhere to act decisively. Transparency, accountability, credibility and responsibility are all needed now more than ever. But the grand jury also serves as a gut-wrenching reminder of the lasting physical and spiritual toll of failure.

There is no softening the horror of the grand jury report. Abuses and the sins and crimes of ignoring them have left thousands of victims. The care, healing and right to justice for victims must remain preeminent in the concerns of Church leaders.  

As the Register recently wrote in its editorial, “in the face of a crisis of this gravity and magnitude, there is simply no room for half measures in how Church leaders, both in Rome and here in the United States, address this renewed crisis.”

Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.