Editor’s note: Some readers may find details in this story to be troubling due to their graphic nature.
A Pennsylvania grand jury said "thousands" of children were the victims of child sexual abuse across six dioceses, and many church leaders took steps to cover up the actions of clergy, a report released Tuesday says.
“There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church,” the grand jury said.
"But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere."
In a 12-page introduction to a more-than-800-page redacted report, the grand jury details alleged child sexual abuse within six Roman Catholic dioceses. The 40th statewide investigating grand jury highlighted similar strategies used by clergy to ignore and excuse the behavior of more than 300 priests.
The six dioceses in the latest grand jury report – Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton, Allentown and Pittsburgh – represent 54 of the state’s 67 counties.
The grand jury said the redacted report released Tuesday is the largest of its kind to date, identifying more abusive priests than the 150 to 250 named in 2002 in Boston, a 2005 grand jury report that identified more than 60 priests in the archdiocese of Philadelphia and the 2016 grand jury report that included the names of 50 abusers within the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.
The grand jury said it reviewed more than 500,000 pages of internal diocesan documents during the course of its two-year investigation in which more than 1,000 child victims were identifiable by the church’s own records.
"We believe that the real number of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward, is in the thousands,” the grand jury said.
The grand jury said the dioceses’ main focus “was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal,’ ” a word that was used repeatedly in documents grand jurors reviewed. Abuse complaints were also kept locked in a “secret archive,” as was required by the church’s Code of Canon Law, which requires the diocese to maintain such an archive to which only the bishop can have a key.
According to the grand jury, the cover-up strategies used across the dioceses were so common that the FBI agreed to assign members of its National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime to review a significant amount of the evidence in this case.
Referring to the process as “a playbook of concealing the truth,” the grand jury said dioceses would use euphemisms to describe sexual assaults in diocese documents, often referring to rape as “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”
More than a dozen priests testified in front of the grand jury, a bulk of them admitting to the actions of which they were accused.
There were both male and female victims, some teens and others prepubescent, the introduction says.
Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography, others were made to masturbate their assailants and others were groped and/or raped.
A majority of the events within the redacted report are from the early 2000’s, according to the grand jury.
Nearly every instance of abuse is too old to be prosecuted based on the state's statute of limitations, although presentments were issued against priests accused of sexually assaulting children within the past decade in the Greensburg and Erie dioceses.
“We learned of these abusers directly from their dioceses – which we hope is a sign that the church is finally changing its ways," the report said. "And there may be more indictments in the future; investigation continues.”
The grand jury said dioceses did not conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel, but assigned fellow clergy to ask questions and make credibility determinations “about the colleagues with whom they live and work.”
Dioceses also sent priests for evaluations at church-run psychiatric treatment centers and did not explain why priests were removed from their parishes, the grand jury said. In some cases, priests who were raping children were provided with housing and living expenses by their dioceses, regardless of whether those resources were being used to facilitate more abuse.
If predators' conduct became known to the community, the grand jury said, the individuals were not removed to ensure prevention of more victims, but instead transferred to a new location.
Rather than handle sexual abuse as a crime, the dioceses handled it as a personnel matter “in house,” the grand jury said.
The introduction of the report provides several examples of how the dioceses investigated ignored allegations or even praised priests accused of sexual abuse.
In some cases, priests who admitted to sexually abusing children were thanked by the bishop of their diocese. In other cases, it took years to remove priests despite numerous reports of abuse.
The grand jury said one priest abused five sisters from the same family and collected samples of their urine, pubic hair and menstrual blood that were later collected from his home during a search.
In another case, the grand jury said a priest raped a girl and impregnated her before arranging for an abortion.
In a letter, the bishop said “this is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.”
“But the letter was not for the girl,” the grand jury said. “It was addressed to the rapist.”
One 7-year-old girl told the grand jury she was raped by her priest, who was visiting her in the hospital after she’d had her tonsils out.
One priest admitted to molesting boys, but denied reports of abusing girls, the grand jury said, because “they don’t have a penis.”
Another priest quit after years of child abuse complaints, but received a letter of reference for his next job at Walt Disney World, the grand jury said.
'They hid it all'
Based on its findings, the grand jury also made several recommendations in its introduction.
Despite the Catholic Church’s efforts to establish internal review processes and report abuse to law enforcement more promptly, the grand jury said “individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability.”
The grand jury said: “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.
“Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted. Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”
First, the grand jury pushed state legislators “to stop shielding child sexual predators behind the criminal statute of limitations,” saying a recent amendment that permits victims to come forward until age 50 is “still not good enough.”
The grand jury also said a “civil window” law is necessary to allow older victims to sue the dioceses for damage inflicted on their lives when they were children.
In addition, the grand jury asked for improvement to the law for mandated reporting of abuse and law that prohibits confidentiality agreements from applying to criminal investigations.
"We think it’s reasonable to expect one of the world’s great religions, dedicated to the spiritual well-being of over a billion people, to find ways to organize itself so that the shepherds stop preying upon the flock,” the grand jury said.
“If it does nothing else, this report removes any remaining doubt that the failure to prevent abuse was a systemic failure, an institutional failure. There are things that the government can do to help. But we hope there will also be self-reflection within the church, and a deep commitment to creating a safer environment for its children."