Bishop Trautman responds to release of Pennsylvania grand jury report

Bishop emeritus Donald Trautman of Erie. CNA file photo.
Bishop emeritus Donald Trautman of Erie. CNA file photo.

.- Bishop Donald Trautman responded Tuesday to the Pennsylvania grand jury report on allegations of clerical sex abuse of minors, saying he did not condone or enable such abuse during his tenure leading the Diocese of Erie.

Abuse victims “should understand that neither this Statement nor my Response to the grand jury Report is intended to diminish the horrible abuse inflicted upon them and the immense suffering they have endured. I desire only to clarify that I neither condoned nor enabled clergy abuse. Rather, I did just the opposite,” Bishop Trautman said in his Aug. 14 statement.

A redacted version of the report had been released earlier that day, following an 18-month investigation into thousands of alleged instances of abuse spanning several decades. The report detailed allegations made in the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton.

Trautman was Bishop of Erie from 1990 until his 2012 retirement, at the age of 76.

The grand jury report's section on the Diocese of Erie recounted priests' sexual contact with minors, and said that “Diocesan administrators, including the Bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and yet priests were regularly placed in ministry after the Diocese was on notice that a complaint of child sexual abuse had been made. This conduct enabled offenders and endangered the welfare of children.”

The report also said the Erie diocese made settlements with victims which contained confidentiality agreements, and that diocesan administrators, including bishops, “often dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to police, pressured law enforcement to terminate or avoid an investigation, or conducted their own deficient, biased investigating without reporting crimes against children to the proper authorities.”

It identified 41 offenders from the diocese, and gave lengthy accounts of what it called three “examples of institutional failure”: the cases of Fathers Chester Gawronski, William Presley, and Thomas Smith.

Bishop Trautman's statement indicated his “prayerful support to all victims of clergy sexual abuse” and “a sincere apology to all who have been harmed by clergy abuse.”

“My time spent as Bishop of the Diocese addressing sexual abuse has been the most demoralizing, trying and pain-filled experience of my priestly life. I have seen first-hand how the terrible acts of clergy abusers devastate the lives of innocent victims,” he said.

He commended the grand jury's efforts to help abuse victims, saying its report “rightfully chastises clergy who committed horrible crimes against children. Unfortunately, the grand jury Report neglects to also emphasize the concrete steps some Church leaders took to correct and curtail abuse and to help victims.”

The bishop said that his record “includes disciplining, defrocking and ultimately laicizing pedophiles in the Diocese.”

He added that it “also includes efforts to provide care and support for victims,” which statement he supported with appended letters from victims expressing gratitude for his pastoral care.

“As a pastor of souls, I shepherd the good – the innocent victims of abuse – as well as the bad, the abusers who undeniably engaged in despicable acts and were rightfully removed from ministry,” Bishop Trautman wrote.

Noting the report's lengthy discussions of three priests whose situations it called “examples of institutional failures”, the bishop emphasized “that I removed each of them from ministry and had each laicized. All of their improper conduct with children pre-dated me becoming Bishop of Erie.”

He maintained his faithful fulfillment of the Charter for the Protection of Childen and Young People, adopted by the US bishops in 2002, and his faithful fulfillment of all Pennsylvania laws on sex abuse.

“From the day I took office as Bishop of the Diocese of Erie, I did my best to correct the sin of sex abuse,” Bishop Trautman said. “I personally met with and counseled abuse victims. I removed sixteen offenders from active ministry … As early as 1993, I established new guidelines concerning clergy abuse.”

He also recounted the several measures he took from 2002 onwards regarding clerical abuse.

“These are not the actions of a Bishop trying to hide or mask pedophile priests to the detriment of children or victims of abuse,” he wrote. “I did not move priests from parish to parish to cover up abuse allegations or fail to take action when an allegation was raised … There simply is no pattern or practice of putting the Church’s image or a priest’s reputation above the protection of children.”

Bishop Trautman said that the report “does not fully or accurately discuss my record as Bishop for twenty-two years in dealing with clergy abuse. While unfortunate, these omissions are consistent with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s findings that the grand jury process that produced the Report suffered from 'limitations upon its truth-finding capabilities' and lacked 'fundamental fairness.'”

The bishop concluded that “In the end, the focus should be on the victims and helping them heal. I send my prayers and deepest support to all victims of abuse, not just those abused by clergy, but victims of abuse across all segments of our society. Hopefully, the grand jury Report, despite its flaws, aids in the healing of all victims and furthers the just cause of stamping out abuse. Let God’s law prevail; let healing continue.”

Attached to Bishop Trautman's 923-word statement were his June 20 response to the report, with several appended exhibitory documents, and an Aug. 2 joint stipulation to dismiss appeal, from the bishop and from state attorney general Josh Shapiro, in which the attorney general agreed that several statements in the report are “not specifically directed at Bishop Trautman.”

The bishop's 15-page response to the report focused on his desire “to clarify, contrary to the tenor of the Report, that he neither condoned nor enabled clergy abuse.”

The response noted that “While the Grand Jury adopted and issued the Report, under typical grand jury practices, the language of the Report was drafted by the [Office of the Attorney General] not the Grand Jury.”

It mentions that the report made no mention of letters sent to Bishop Trautman by abuse victims expressing appreciation for his pastoral care (which letters were provided to the grand jury), and that written testimony submitted by Bishops Trautman and Persico, his successor, “is not substantively discussed in the Report, let alone included in it in full.”

“What these examples demonstrate is that the OAG, via the Grand Jury, with an agenda, has selectively chosen the words in the Report, what words to include in the Report, and how to portray those words in a manner – often a misleading one – that best suits their agenda.”

The response also noted that Bishop Trautman met personally, or attempted to do so, with each abuse victim. And, “when victims would permit him, he personally provided pastoral counselling for the victims’ well-being. He also helped ensure that victims had appropriate mental health treatment paid for by the Diocese.”

“Certainly, with hindsight, some isolated decisions made by Bishop Trautman concerning certain priests … might be subject to critique. But, what is clear from his overall conduct – and complete actual record – is that he cared deeply about the victims of abuse, did his best to help the victims both pastorally and financially, did not condone the horrific conduct of priests who abused minors, and consistently took action to remove abusers from active ministry.”

Since the report detailed the cases of  Fathers Chester Gawronski, William Presley, and Thomas Smith, Bishop Trautman's response addressed these at length.

The response explained that “New allegations against priests made while Bishop Trautman was in office resulted in the priest being taken out of active ministry.”

The exceptions to this rule were priests who “had been sent for a psychological evaluation” under Bishop Murphy, Trautman's predecessor.

Each of these – including Gawronski, Presley, and Smith –  were “already on a monitoring/aftercare program that had been recommended by psychiatric professionals. While in hindsight he might now act differently, given the recommendations and plans made before Bishop Trautman came to the Diocese from Buffalo and out of deference to Bishop Murphy, Bishop Trautman continued the monitoring/aftercare plans and assignments recommended by the professionals and put in place by his predecessor.”

And according to the response, “In several instances, even though mental health professionals advised that a priest could be returned to ministry, Bishop Trautman kept the priest out of public ministry.”

The response also noted that neither Gawronski, nor Presley, nor Smith “is known to have reoffended. During the time period each of these priests remained in active ministry after initial allegations were made, no allegation that they offended while in such ministry was or has been made.”

“When allegations of prior (usually decades old) abuse by each priest were raised while Bishop Trautman was in office, he acted to take each priest out of any ministry that would include contact with children and ultimately took each out of ministry all together,” the response stated.

Each of the three priests were dismissed from the clerical state in processes which were initiated by Bishop Trautman.

The bishop’s response included examples of potentially misleading writing in the grand jury report, authored by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office.

For instance, it noted the report's mention that Bishop Trautman allowed Fr. Gawronski to hear confessions for persons with disabilities in 1996.

The report stated: “By 1996, there was no possible doubt that Gawronski had spent most of his priesthood preying on the vulnerable. However, even as complaints continued, on November 6, 1996, Gawronski was notified that Trautman had approved his request to hear confessions for persons with disabilities.”

“What the Report does not include,” the response states, “is that this was a one-time event, with multiple priests and church personnel participating, that the event would take place at the St. Mark’s Center (the building where the Diocesan offices, including the Bishop’s office, are located), and that Gawronski’s participation was at the request of a religious sister who served as Coordinator for the Ministry to Persons with Disabilities. Why not disclose the full facts about the request? Does the request lose its sensational nature when put in actual context?”

The response also pointed to potentially misleading statements in the report regarding Fr. Presley.

The report mentioned an April 2003 press release from the Erie diocese regarding the removal of Fr. Presley's faculties, in which the diocese stated it had “no information to provide on other possible allegations against the priest.” The report called the press release “false and misleading.”

The response noted that the press release quoted in the report, while “inartful … is simply a statement of 'no comment.' Contrary to the allegation in the Report, this was not a false statement.”

The response also addressed the report's presentation of a 2005 diocesan investigation undertaken with a view to having Fr. Presley, who had retired in 2000, dismissed from the clerical state.

The investigation was led by Msgr. Mark Bartchak, who wrote to Bishop Trautman Aug. 25 of that year indicating he had gathered sufficient evidence for Presley's dismissal, and asking if he should continue to follow up on further potential leads. Bartchak indicated that Trautman said that would be unnecessary.

The report called this a “curb” of the diocese's investigation intented “to prevent finding additional victims.”

“When read in context,” the response says, “Bishop Trautman is simply answering an inquiry from Rev. Bartchak and, using the same words from the inquiry, telling him that, if the Diocese had enough evidence to succeed in the laicization process (which they did), he need not further investigate facts that likely would not lead to a violation of Cannon law [sic] because of the age of the victim. Again, this simply is not an effort to somehow hide Presley and his conduct.”

The report also read that with regard to Presley, “The truth was that Murphy, Trautman, and the Diocese of Erie intentionally waited out the statute of limitations and curbed their own investigation to prevent finding additional victims.”

The response called the allegation that Bishop Trautman had “intentionally waited out” the statute of limitations “baseless.”

“The allegations brought to Bishop Trautman’s attention in 2002 – on which he quickly acted – concerned conduct that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. The statute of limitations had, unfortunately, expired long ago,” the response said.

“Despite their artful (and sometimes misleading) construction, a close reading of the summaries found in the Report’s Appendix reveals the same course of action throughout Bishop Trautman’s 22 years in office,” the response concluded: “Bishop Trautman consistently acted to protect children and remove priests from ministry.”

Tags: Catholic News, Pennsylvania grand jury, Bishop Donald Trautman