WARNING: Some of the content of this article may be graphic in nature and offensive to the reader.
HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Grand Jury that exposed 301 Pennsylvania Catholic priests rape and sexual abuse of at least 1,000 victims, said changes are coming but, according to one Catholic official, the changes come from public pressure, not internal concerns.
Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest, published author, and canon law authority who has testified before numerous legal bodies about the history of the church’s handling of child sexual abuse complaints.
“As Father Doyle testified, meaningful change on child abuse has been largely generated by forces external to the church – mostly by
media attention and grand jury reports like this one. Doyle explained that diocesan bishops tend to be resistant to anything that reduces or questions their power. It’s all about the bishops. If diocesan bishops respond to these external pressures, then real change is possible,” the report said
In a healthy step, the jury report said the Bishop of Scranton disclosed the names of all accused priests within his diocese to local law enforcement. The Bishop of Harrisburg began a process to publicly identify offenders within his own diocese, and provided some confirmation of offenders’ identities in response to press inquiries.
“As a result of this sort of assistance, this grand jury has discovered and issued presentments in two different cases of child sex abuse: one against Father James Sweeney of the Diocese of Greensburg and the other against Father David Poulson of the Diocese of Erie. In both instances, the dioceses provided important information. This isn’t to say that the church is cured of the scourge of child sexual abuse; these active prosecutions show that there are still priests abusing children in Pennsylvania. But with better cooperation, they can be stopped sooner,” the report said.
Doyle noted that the Charter did not overturn the secrecy provisions that canon law had long-established. And it left it up to the bishop to determine what was, or wasn’t, a credible allegation. The next step, then, was the creation by the dioceses of review boards for internal investigations.
“While a welcome idea in principle, we learned that these processes were sometimes used as investigative mechanisms to build a defense case for potential litigation against victims. Some review board members were very well qualified, although others lacked training, or weren’t provided all relevant records secretly maintained by the bishops in the archives. And ultimately, any review board decision was left to the bishop, and to priest-administrators whose ascension within the diocese required alignment with the bishop’s goals. In the end, only the bishop could take the action needed to remove an offender from the diocese or the priesthood,” the report concluded.
Jurors were quick to note their report should not be considered anti-Catholic.
“Many of us, the grand jurors, are practicing Catholics. Many of the people we heard from, victims and witnesses, are Catholics. If anything we feel aligned with, not opposed to, the members of that faith. Child abuse, after all, is not just illegal; it is against the creeds of every major religion, including Catholicism. People of all faiths and of no faith want their children to be safe. But we were presented with a conspicuous concentration of child sex abuse cases that have come from the church. Because our investigation produced information from so many dioceses over so many decades, we think it’s important to report on some of the changes we’ve seen – or at least the potential for change,” according to the report.
The Grand Jury report encourages abuse victims of the church to come forward and pursue justice.
“We encourage victims of sexual abuse by people affiliated with the Catholic Church to come forward for their own benefit and to help us have an even more comprehensive understanding of the past. We know that with their help, the list of names may grow,” jurors said. “We understand that victims’ memories may be incomplete. We want to tell victims not to be concerned if they do not have exact dates or locations of their abuse. We are willing to listen to them and accompany them as we all search for the truth.”
FBI agents identified seven factors that arose repeatedly in the diocesan response to child abuse complaints:
- Use of euphemisms: Mischaracterization of assaults and misleading designations for the removal of a priest for a complaint of child sexual abuse. Violent criminal sexual acts, for example, were often described only as “inappropriate” contact or “boundary issues.” The temporary or
permanent removal of a priest from service was often coded as “sick leave” or “leave.”
- Deficient or biased diocesan investigations: Investigations conducted by untrained clergy or teachers, given authority to make credibility determinations about fellow clergy members. Use of untrained support personnel for victims services.
- Treatment provider bias: Use of church-run psychological facilities that regularly relied upon the “self-reports” of the offenders, who typically downplayed or denied their criminal conduct. Failure to provide contrary information supplied by victims. Reliance on clinical “diagnosis” rather than actual conduct. Misallocation of the burden of proof: absent a definitive diagnosis, child abusers were often simply returned to ministry.
- Lack of public disclosure: Failure to disclose criminal sexual conduct to parishioners – information that the community needed to protect children. Use of terms such as “retired” or “reassigned” that disarmed parents who might otherwise have looked for signs of abuse.
- Financial support: Continuing to fund abusive priests, providing them with housing, transportation, benefits, and stipends – and leaving abusers with the resources to locate, groom and assault more children.
- Transfer rather than removal: Regular, systemic, and institutionalized practice of reassigning a priest to a new location – rather than removing him from ministry – after complaints of child sexual abuse. Priests regularly returned to ministry even after confessing to sexually abusing children. Only bishops and certain high level diocesan administrators knew, and they held information within secret or confidential archives of the diocese. Not surprisingly, priests reassigned to ministry often abused additional children.
Insufficient reports to law enforcement: Refusal to make any report to law enforcement, or significantly delaying reports, or providing stripped-down reports. These minimal reports often lacked sufficient specificity to relay the gravity of the crime, the scope of the conduct, or relevant dates and locations. Even confessions or corroborating pieces of evidence were often withheld.
“We think of this constellation of factors as the “the circle of secrecy.” We didn’t come up with that phrase on our own, and neither did the FBI. We got it from Bishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh, now Cardinal of Washington D.C., in one of the documents we reviewed; these were his own words for the church’s child sex abuse coverup,” according to the report.
The aftermath of the scandal may never be fully known because there is no real way to determine how many victis there actually are.
The report concluded “Although the FBI could see how the dioceses were doing it, that doesn’t mean we know how much they were doing it. The agents were clear that we will never really know how many abusers there were, and how many victims there were. It was hard enough for victims to come forward; but when they did, the complaints were often forgotten about, misplaced, shrugged off, or immediately discounted. The church’s response not only depressed the number of “confirmed” complaints, but discouraged additional victims from reporting, knowing they might be rebuffed or ridiculed. As the bishop said, it was a circle,”
“The repeating pattern of the bishops’ behavior left us with no doubt that, even decades ago, the church understood that the problem was prevalent. Remember, when they were finally subpoenaed, the dioceses produced over half a million pages of documents. The abuse was occurring not only by its own people, but on its own property. Children were raped in places of worship, in schools, and in diocesan owned vehicles, and were groomed through diocesan programs and retreats.”
Bishop Persico of Erie, chose to appear in person before the grand jury.
“Cooperation with this investigation was not his first impulse. When the grand jury issued a subpoena many months ago, the Diocese of Erie, on advice of counsel, withheld material. We got the documents anyway using a search warrant. At that point, the bishop decided things were on
the wrong track. He switched lawyers and resolved to take a different approach. That decision eventually led him to meet us, face to face,” jurors said.
Persico announced a set of changes to policy. Among them, Persico said are an expanded set of definitions of child abuse; new efforts to cross-check personnel with previously withheld diocesan records through the Diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Youth; and the public identification of persons who have been credibly accused of actions ranging from furnishing pornography to direct, sexual assaults of minors.
“These are wise and welcome policies; we encourage other bishops to follow Erie’s example. As Bishop Persico explained to his parishioners:
In publishing the list of those who have credible allegations against them, the first goal is to protect children. It is not possible for us to monitor all the people on the list. This is an important step in helping the public become aware of information that is important for the community’s well-being.
Some are concerned that publicizing these names will open old wounds. Very importantly, we are actually publishing the names in the hope of helping the victims/survivors move one step closer to healing those same wounds. It is important they know they are not alone,” the report quotes.
This is part four of a four part series.