Pennsylvania grand jury report details decades of clerical abuse allegations

Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Saint Paul.  Credit: Jwhairybob/cc 2.5
Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Saint Paul. Credit: Jwhairybob/cc 2.5

.- A redacted grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses was released Tuesday, following an 18-month investigation into thousands of alleged instances of abuse spanning several decades.  

The report, detailing allegations made in the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton, was released Aug.14. It reported on evidence of systematic abuse and cover-ups going back seven decades within these dioceses.

About half of Pennsylvania’s nearly 3 million Catholics live within these six dioceses.

The 884-page report was written by 23 grand jurors, who spent some 18 months investigating the six dioceses, examining half a million pages of documents in the process. The FBI assisted with the investigative process.

The report claims to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests and presents a devastating portrait of efforts by Church authorities to, ignore, obscure, or cover up allegations - either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.

The report also identified a series of practices present in different ways across the dioceses which together amounted to a “playbook for concealing the truth.”

These include use of phrases like “boundary issues” or ”inappropriate contact” instead of explicitly referring to rape and sexual abuse, assigning priests to investigate their peers, instead of using qualified and objective personnel, and a reliance on psychological assessments and diagnoses based upon the self-reporting of clerics.

Due to laws regarding the statute of limitations, nearly every abuse allegation cannot be criminally prosecuted, although two indictments have been filed. So far, one priest, Fr. John Sweeney, has been convicted of sexually assaulting a student in the early 1990s.

The released report was partially redacted, which Attorney General Josh Shapiro was displeased about. The redactions were due to ongoing appellate litigation.

The grand jury report contains the names of 301 men. Some names were not released due to the aforementioned ongoing court cases. Details of their crimes were also redacted.

The number of victims was estimated to be in the thousands, but the true number was not quantifiable, the report said. The majority of the victims in cases examined by the grand jury were male. The ages of the victims ranged from pre-pubescent to young-adult seminarians.

The offending priests are accused of a variety of crimes, including rape, molestation, and groping. The report states that some of the priests were able to manipulate their victims with alcohol and pornography.

Approximately two-thirds of the accused priests have died. The youngest offender named in the report was born in the 1990s.

Overall, nearly one-third of the accused priests came from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the highest percentage. The second-highest by number was the Diocese of Scranton, with 55 priests within the diocese, as well as four members of the Society of St. John, identified in the report.

A total of 10 priests from Pittsburgh were identified only as “Pittsburgh Priests #1-10,” as they could not be directly identified. Two priests from Harrisburg were similarly only identified as “Harrisburg Priest #1” and “Harrisburg Priest #2.”  

The Dioceses of Harrisburg and Erie have already released the names of the priests who were credibly accused of sex crimes, and the remaining dioceses pledged to do so upon the release of the grand jury report.

On August 1, Harrisburg released a list of 71 accused priests, deacons, and seminarians, which the diocese admitted was “overinclusive.” The grand jury report contained 45 names from Harrisburg, including three former seminarians.

Erie’s list included 62 people, including laypersons, who were accused of sex crimes over the last 70 years. A total of 41 people from Erie were included in the report, including one former seminarian.

In the Diocese of Allentown, 31 priests were listed, plus two members of the Carmelites, and a lay person employed as a basketball coach at a school in the diocese.

The Diocese of Greensburg had the fewest number of accused priests, with a total of 20 priests identified.

The grand jury report covered all accusations of abuse during the last 70 years, from 1947 until 2017 within the dioceses subject to investigation.  

Data provided by the Dioceses of Greensburg and Pittsburgh showed that most of the alleged abuse occurred during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Greensburg did not list any abuse claims from the 2000s or 2010s.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh saw the number of reported abuse incidents spike during the 1980s, with slightly more than 80 allegations. In the 2000s, there were fewer than 10 reported.

The Dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, and Scranton did not provide hard numbers on the timeline of abuse incidents, but each explained how they have taken steps since the mid-80s to early 90s to implement policies within their dioceses to prevent abuse.

Over the past several decades, the Church in the United States implemented a series of proactive steps intended to create a safer environment for children. These included a tougher screening process for seminarians, trainings for parish workers on how to identify and prevent abuse, and new policies on how a diocese should respond to reported misconduct.

Tags: Catholic News, Clerical sexual abuse, Pennsylvania grand jury