More than 1,000 children – and possibly many more – were molested by hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in six dioceses in the US state of Pennsylvania, while senior church officials took steps to cover it up, according to a landmark grand jury report released on Tuesday.
The grand jury said it believes the real number of abused children might be in the thousands since some records were lost and victims were afraid to come forward. The report said more than 300 clergy committed the abuse over a period decades, beginning in the mid-1950s.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the two-year probe found a systematic cover-up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.
“The cover-up was sophisticated. And all the while, shockingly, church leadership kept records of the abuse and the cover-up. These documents, from the dioceses’ own ‘Secret Archives,’ formed the backbone of this investigation,” he said at a news conference in the city of Harrisburg.
The report faulted Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former longtime bishop of Pittsburgh who now leads the Washington archdiocese, for what it said was his part in the concealment of clergy sexual abuse. Wuerl, one of the most prominent cardinals in the United States, released a statement Tuesday that said he had “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse”.
The grand jury scrutinised abuse allegations in dioceses that minister to more than half the state’s 3.2 million Catholics. Its report echoed the findings of many earlier church investigations around the country in its description of widespread sexual abuse by clergy and church officials’ concealment of it.
Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey, reporting from Harrisburg, said the allegations made in the report were “really shocking”.
Most of the abuse survivors were boys, but girls were abused too, the report said. The abuse ranged from groping and masturbation to anal, oral and vaginal rape.
“Church officials routinely and purposefully described the abuse as horseplay and wrestling … It was none of those things. It was child sexual abuse, including rape,” Shapiro said.
He also said that one priest had molested five sisters in one family. The diocese settled with the family after requiring a confidentiality agreement, according to Shapiro.
Church officials routinely and purposefully described the abuse as horseplay and wrestling ... It was none of those things. It was child sexual abuse, including rape.
The attorney general said that Catholic bishops covered up child sexual abuse by priests and reassigned them repeatedly to different parishes. “They allowed priests to remain active for as long as 40 years,” he said.
“Children were taught that this abuse was not only normal but that it was holy.”
Crimes too old to prosecute
The panel concluded that a succession of Catholic bishops and other diocesan leaders tried to shield the church from bad publicity and financial liability by covering up abuse, failing to report accused clergy to police and discouraging victims from going to law enforcement.
Yet the grand jury’s work will not result in justice for the vast majority of those who say they were molested by priests as children. While the probe yielded charges against two clergymen – including a priest who has since pleaded guilty, and another who allegedly forced his accuser to say confession after each sex assault – the other priests identified as perpetrators are either dead or will avoid arrest because their alleged crimes are too old to prosecute under state law.
“The issue here is that many of these cases occurred so long ago that they cannot be charged criminally here in the state,” Saloomey said.
The Pennsylvania grand jury, convened by the Office of the Attorney General in 2016, heard from dozens of witnesses and reviewed more than a half-million pages of internal documents from the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses.
Some current and former clergy named in the report went to court to prevent its release, arguing it violated their constitutional rights to reputation and due process of law. The state Supreme Court said the public had a right to see it, but ruled the names of priests and others who objected to the findings would be blacked out pending a September hearing on their claims.
The identities of those clergy members remain under court seal.
A couple of dioceses decided to strip the accused of their anonymity in advance of the report and released the names of clergy members who were accused of sexual misconduct. On Friday, the bishop of Pittsburgh’s diocese said a few priests named in the report are still in ministry because the diocese determined allegations against them were unsubstantiated.
Cases surface from Chile to Australia
The document comes at a time of renewed scrutiny and fresh scandals in the US, Chile and Australia.
Separately on Tuesday, the Chilean government asked the Vatican for documents related to sex abuse accusations against clergy in Chile, as local prosecutors raided another office of the Roman Catholic Church in Santiago. In June, Chile’s 34 bishops were summoned to Rome by the pope after Vatican investigators produced a 2,300-page report alleging that senior Church officials in Chile had failed to act on abuse claims and in some cases hid them. Pope Francis has accepted resignations by five of those bishops.
In Australia, a former archbishop was recently convicted of failing to disclose abuse by a priest to police after being told about it by two of the survivors in the 1970s. On Tuesday, he was spared jail time when he was ordered to serve his one-year sentence at home due to a range of health issues.
Last month, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of 88-year-old US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, ordering him to a lifetime of prayer and penance amid allegations that McCarrick had for years sexually abused boys and had sexual misconduct with adult seminarians.