More than 300 “predator priests” of the Catholic church are accused of abusing more than 1,000 child victims over the past 70 years in a scathing grand jury report released Tuesday.
The 1,400-page report, a result of a two-year investigation led by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, details a “systematic” cover-up by church officials in six of the state’s eight dioceses. The other two dioceses were the subject of separate grand jury reports.
“Pennsylvanians can finally learn the extent of sexual abuse in these dioceses,” Shapiro said at a news conference Tuesday. “For the first time, we can all begin to understand the systematic cover-up by church leaders that followed. The abuse scarred every diocese. The cover-up was sophisticated. The church protected the institution at all costs.”
Grand jurors indicated in their report that they subpoenaed and reviewed 500,000 pages of internal church documents that contained allegations of sexual abuse against 1,000 children — mostly boys — adding that they believe the real number of victims could be in the thousands.
“Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them,” the report states. “Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.”
The grand jury said it found that church leaders chose to avoid scandal rather than helping children.
“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,” the report states.
As a result of the cover-up, the report states, many of the cases of abuse that were found are too old to be prosecuted. However, two priests in two different dioceses were charged with crimes that fall within the statute of limitations, according to the grand jury.
One priest is accused of ejaculating in the mouth of a 7-year-old. The other priest allegedly assaulted two boys on a monthly basis for several years until as recently as 2010.
“But we are not satisfied by the few charges we can bring, which represent only a tiny percentage of all the child abusers we saw,” the report states. “We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated. This report is our only recourse.”
In internal church documents, sexual assaults were referred to as “inappropriate conduct” or “boundary issues,” according to the grand jury report. When a complaint was made, fellow clergy members were tasked with questioning their colleagues.
If a priest had to be removed, parishioners were never told the reason why. Instead, they were told the priest was on “sick leave” or suffering from “nervous exhaustion.”
According to the report, if a priest’s conduct became public, they were not reported to the police. Instead they were transferred to a parish “where no one will know he is a child abuser.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former longtime bishop of Pittsburgh who was faulted in the report for how he handled the priest transfers and abuse allegations, said in a statement through the Washington Archdiocese on Tuesday accusing the Attorney General’s Office of mischaracterizing his actions.
“In factual ways large and small the attorney general’s office was more concerned with getting this report out than getting it right. Such a focus detracts from the shared goals of protection and healing,” the archdiocese said. “As Cardinal Wuerl has made clear, the findings of this report will create a challenging time for the faithful, the public, but especially the survivors of abuse, their families and loved ones. The focus should be on helping them heal, while also ensuring our most vulnerable are protected.”
The report also detailed the names of alleged offenders and those who helped cover up, including the case of a priest at the Diocese of Erie who confessed to fondling 12 boys, telling them he was performing a "cancer check." After his confession, the priest remained in active ministry for 15 years.
Another priest, in the Diocese of Allentown, confessed to sexually molesting a boy. But the dioceses concluded that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim, and that the family should have “an opportunity to ventilate.”
At the Dioceses of Greensburg, a priest is accused of impregnating a 17-year-old, forging the head pastor’s signature on a marriage certificate, then divorcing the victim.
“Despite having sex with a minor, despite fathering a child, despite being married and being divorced, the priest was permitted to stay in ministry,” the report states.
One boy was forced to stand on a bed in a rectory, strip naked, and pose as Christ on the cross for the priests, Shapiro said during Tuesday’s press conference. Priests then took photos of their victim, “adding them to a collection of child pornography which they produced and shared on church grounds.”
According to the report, during the grand jury’s deliberations, one of the victims who testified tried to kill herself.
“From her hospital bed, she asked for one thing: that we finish our work and tell the world what really happened,” the report states. “We feel a debt to this woman, and to the many other victims who so exposed themselves by giving us their stories. We hope this report will make good on what we owe.”
Read the full report here.