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Scathing report reveals 300 Pennsylvania Catholic priests sexually abused over 1,000 children

The report is a watershed moment in the Catholic child sex abuse crisis.

Pope Francis Celebrates Mass On Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court made public one of the broadest-ever investigations into Catholic clerical sex abuse of minors in the United States in August. The document, a 1,400-page grand jury report, is the result of an 18-month probe by Pennsylvania state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and names at least 300 priests accused of child sex abuse by more than 1,000 victims throughout the state.

Some of the priests’ names in the report have been redacted. The report’s release was delayed after several clergy members named in the report filed legal challenges against its publication. Shapiro told reporters at a news conference that the report details “systematic coverup by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.”

The latest revelation comes at the end of a summer already marked by scandal for the Catholic Church. In July, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, previously the archbishop of Washington, DC, and among the highest-ranking Vatican officials in America, was forced to resign his cardinalship following numerous accusations of sex abuse from both adult seminarians and children. (McCarrick’s alleged crimes are beyond the legal statute of limitations; he faces an ecclesiastical trial at the Vatican.)

Earlier this year, Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s highest-ranking official, took a leave of absence to face criminal charges of child sex abuse in his native Australia. These numerous high-profile cases have cast a wider media spotlight on an ongoing story of abuse, secrecy, and cover-up that dates back decades.

The Pennsylvania files, though, represent the most wide-ranging investigation yet into Catholic clerical child sexual abuse in the United States. Despite the fact that the report covers just six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses — just a fraction of the dioceses in America overall — it suggests a widespread and large-scale operation on the part of church hierarchy nationwide to cover up the behavior of offending priests and help them escape punishment.

The report, which is often graphic and disturbing, details widespread sexual abuse and rape by priests of both female and male minors, many of whom used the language and rhetoric of their office to convince their victims that their sexual abuse was “holy” or desired by God. The breadth of the accusations and the graphic specificity of the charges make the report a watershed moment in the history of abuse in the Catholic Church: one that will take the church decades to recover from.

The Pennsylvania report is graphic and disturbing

The Pennsylvania report represents a two-year investigation by a state grand jury, which reviewed more than 500,000 internal dioceses’ documents and reports that had not previously been made public; dozens of victims were also interviewed. The charges detailed in the report go back as far as 30 years, and implicate 300 priests in the abuse of more than 1,000 victims. (The report stresses that the actual number of victims and abusers in the state is probably much higher, given how common it is for victims to refuse to come forward.)

The report also implicates senior priests and bishops in knowingly reshuffling offenders from parish to parish, allowing them to continue their abuse unchecked. In Pennsylvania, grand juries often serve as investigative bodies, researching the evidence of potential crimes before criminal charges are filed. This latest report covers six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, including Harrisburg, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Erie, Allentown, and Scranton. Two other dioceses, Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, have previously been the subject of grand jury investigations; both investigations produced comparable results.

The report details a number of disturbing and lurid cases, including a priest accused of raping a 7-year-old girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils removed, and a ring of priests in the Pittsburgh area who traded pornographic photographs of their victims.

Among the high-level ecclesiastical officials implicated in the report is Donald Wuerl, currently the archbishop of Washington, DC. While Wuerl is not accused of sexual abuse directly, the report alleges that he authorized the resignation in good standing of Rev. Ernest Paone, a known serial pedophile in the church, which allowed Paeone to collect a full pension. Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation in October.

It is currently unclear what repercussions will be taken against the named priests and bishops, especially as nearly all of the charges took place beyond the statute of limitations. The grand jury and Shapiro are both lobbying to amend the statute of limitations to allow individual victims to pursue legal action against their alleged abusers. However, individual dioceses are taking preliminary action. In the diocese of Harrisburg, for example, Bishop Ronald Gainer ordered the names of any priests or bishops implicated by the report to be removed from church buildings or memorials.

The disturbing revelations in Pennsylvania may be catastrophic for the Catholic Church. But the Catholic child sex abuse scandal has been in the national and international spotlight for decades.

The Boston Globe Spotlight team brought US clerical sex abuse scandals to light

Throughout the late 20th century, intermitted accusations of clerical sex abuse would come to light. But then in the late 1990s, a sustained series of revelations about clerical sex abuse happened in Ireland.

In the United States, however, the turning point came in January 2002, when the Boston Globe published the results of dogged reporting about clerical child sex abuse in the Boston area. Investigative journalists at the paper found that at least 70 Boston priests had committed acts of child sexual abuse. Even more surprising at the time, many of these abuse cases were known to the offending priests’ superiors. In several instances, church superiors had moved offending priests to other parishes — where they would remain in daily contact with a new batch of children — rather than punish them internally or report the cases to civil authorities.

The highest-profile individual to be implicated in that scandal was Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law. The Globe’s reporting found that Law had been directly responsible for some of the transfers of serial pedophile priest John Geoghan, which allowed Geoghan to keep abusing children with impunity.

Following the Globe story, other critics, such as the lay Catholic group Voices of the Faithful, came forward with more allegations that Law knew about additional abusers and had in some cases outright lied in order to transfer them quietly to other parishes.

Law resigned from his position as archbishop in December 2002 but retained his titles of bishop and cardinal until his death in December 2017. He never faced criminal charges and remained influential in shaping Vatican policy until his death.

Following the Globe’s reporting, the church’s systemic cover-up efforts were put under a microscope

The Globe’s reporting galvanized wider research on the extent of clerical sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church in the United States.

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) established a charter of procedures to deal with accused child sex abusers in the clergy, including a “zero tolerance” policy for accused abusers. Two years later, the USCCB commissioned a report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, digging into the extent of abuse over the past five decades.

The report concluded that between 1950 and 2002, a staggering 4,392 priests had been accused of child molestation by 10,667 individuals throughout the US. Given the reluctance of victims to come forward, that figure is probably an underestimate. This represented about 4.3 percent of active American Catholic clergy during that time.

Only a tiny fraction of these priests had ever been convicted in a court of law. Just 252 priests were convicted of a crime, and a mere 100 served time in prison. The report also found that the Catholic Church had paid at least $500 million in quiet settlements to alleged victims and their families over the years, suggesting that higher-level church officials across the United States were aware of the extent of the crisis and had actively sought to buy the silence of victims. (A 2006 study found that the church had in fact spent $2.6 billion at that point.)

The Vatican’s response to the scandals has been inconsistent

The Jay report concluded that, by and large, the church hierarchy had systematically defended and protected its offending priests, treating their offenses as sins that demanded repentance and forgiveness rather than criminal prosecution. Complicating matters was the fact that very few of the cases identified were criminally prosecutable, due to the statute of limitations.

The response from the Vatican, however, was somewhat muted. While Pope John Paul II condemned clergy abuse as an “appalling sin,” he urged Catholics to focus on the “power of Christian conversion” — redemption — for abusers, and blamed bishops’ poor handling of the crisis as rooted in “the advice of clinical experts,” meaning therapists.

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, fared a little better. He handed over control of dealing with priest allegations to the centralized office of the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith, which he personally oversaw. Under his watch, the church defrocked 384 priests who’d been accused of child sex abuse. Benedict met with victims, including five from the Boston Archdiocese.

But according to his critics, Benedict did not go far enough. He allowed bishops found of protecting abusive priests, like Kansas’s Robert Finn — who was criminally convicted and sentenced to probation for failing to report child pornography on a junior priest’s computer — to remain in office after his conviction. He instituted new rules to bar men with same-sex attraction from priestly office, seen by many as an unnecessary and insulting move.

And in 2010, revelations emerged that Benedict himself, as an archbishop in Munich in the 1980s, had been responsible for overseeing the transfer into therapy of a German priest accused of child sex abuse. That priest was later cleared for reentry into pastoral work, only to commit further sexual abuse and ultimately be prosecuted for it.

Pope Francis’s legacy has, likewise, been mixed

Shortly after becoming pope, Francis announced the creation of a Vatican committee to fight sex abuse in the church. He also publicly apologized for the Vatican’s actions, expressing regret that “personal, moral damage” had been “carried out by men of the Church.” He also announced that any priest who had enabled abuse by moving an abuser to another parish should resign.

However, progress has been slow. In 2016, the Vatican committee scrapped a proposal that any senior cleric accused of covering up abuse be subject to an internal tribunal, angering victim advocates. That same year, Marie Collins, an abuse survivor, stepped down from the committee, calling the Vatican’s lack of progress “shameful.”

Francis, too, has vocally cast doubt on accusers. Most notably, late last year, he took a defensive stance when confronted with the case of Father Juan Barros, a Chilean priest accused of covering up the systematic child abuse of another priest, Father Fernando Karadima, calling the allegations “calumny.” (He later apologized for his remarks, and the entire Chilean bishopric resigned under pressure.)

Francis’s response to the abuse crisis in the wake of the report has been mixed. Initially, he published a 2,000-word apology to victims. Then, he found himself at the center of cover-up accusations when former Vatican aide Carlos Maria Viganò accused him of knowingly turning a blind eye to sanctions against Cardinal McCarrick instituted by Benedict XVI, allegations on which Francis has consistently refused to comment. In September, Francis announced that he would convene a global summit to combat the wider abuse crisis. As of October, just three in 10 Catholics approve of Francis’s handling of the crisis.

It’s worth recognizing that those named in the report will face almost no repercussions. “As a consequence of the coverup,” the report says, “almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.”

Still, progress may yet be made on the level of law enforcement. At least eight other states are looking into commissioning statewide investigations similar to Pennsylvania’s. And on Thursday, the Department of Justice subpoenaed seven Pennsylvania dioceses as part of a national-level investigation into clerical sex abuse.

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