What just happened?

Last week a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a 1,356-page report claiming that bishops, priests, and deacons within the Catholic Church in almost every diocese in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse over a period of 70 years.

“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury says in the report. “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.”

What is a grand jury report?

The grand jury is a jury of citizens that determines whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that a specific person or persons committed it. If the grand jury finds probable cause to exist, then it will return a written statement of the charges called an indictment.

After the issuance of an indictment, the case moves to trial where the accused can then defend themselves against the charges brought against them before a petit jury (also called a trial jury).

According to Pennsylvania state law, any investigating grand jury, by an affirmative majority vote of the full investigating grand jury, may, at any time during its term submit to the supervising judge an investigating grand jury report. The judge to whom such report is submitted determines whether report is released as a public record.

What is a Catholic diocese?

The Catholic Church considers itself, as a whole, to be the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ” spread across various local churches, or parishes. These local branches in a particular geographic area—sometimes called “particular churches” or dioceses—are a “full expression of Roman Catholic Christianity in a given area.”

Dioceses usually follow local boundaries such as counties, and are usually centered on a metropolitan area or prominent city within that territory. An ecclesiastical leader called a bishop oversees each individual diocese. An archbishop administers an archdiocese, which is just a large diocese.

Dioceses are autonomous churches that cooperate through national conferences of bishops and are limited only to the authority of the pope or ecumenical council.

What is the difference between a bishop, priest, and deacon?

Although the report refers to abusive priests, those involved in the abuse and the conspiracy of silence included priests, deacons, and bishops.

Along with baptism and the Eucharist, one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church is the sacrament of ‘holy orders.” These holy orders consist of three levels of ordination with the church—deacon, priest, and bishop.

Deacons are ordained by a bishop not to the ministerial priesthood but to the ministry of service. Deacons may baptize, proclaim the gospel, preach the homily, assist the bishop or priest in Mass (i.e., the “celebration of the Eucharist”), assist at and bless marriages, and preside at funerals.

Priests have completed seminary and are ordained to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and give absolution, celebrate baptism, serve as the church’s witness at the “sacrament of Holy Matrimony,” administer “Anointing of the Sick,” and administer confirmation if authorized to do so by their bishop. The priest must promise obedience to the bishop in “service to God’s people.”

Bishops receive the “fullness of the Sacrament of Holy Orders” and become “successors of the Apostles.” A bishop belongs to the college of bishops and serves as the visible head or pastor of a diocese. As a college, the bishops oversee all the churches in union with and under the authority of the pope—the head of the college of bishops and the bishop of Rome. Only the pope has authority to discipline or remove bishops from their ministry.

What is a statute of limitation?

statute of limitation is a law that forbids state prosecutors from charging someone with a crime that was committed more than a specified number of years ago. The general purpose of statutes of limitation is to make sure convictions occur only upon evidence (physical or eyewitness) that has not deteriorated with time. After the period of the statute has run, the criminal is essentially free. Some offenses, such as murder, have no statute of limitations.

In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for sex offenses against a minor victim is until the victim turns 50 years old. In cases of non-minors—involving rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, or deviant sexual intercourse—the statute of limitations is 12 years.

The grand jury report notes that many of the victims have passed that age and, “As a consequence of the cover-up, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.” Only two priests were charged with crimes that fell within the statute of limitations.

What was the scope of the grand jury investigation?

Regional area: The investigation covered six of the eight Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, every diocese in the state except Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, which were the subject of previous grand juries. These six dioceses account for 54 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Time frame: Over several decades, with most of the abuses occurring before the early 2000s. Many of the victims are in their 60s and 70s.

Documents reviewed: Half a million pages of internal diocesan documents were reviewed during the investigation.

Alleged perpetrators: Allegations of sexually predatory action were made against more than 300 priests.

Number of victims: More than 1,000 child victims were identifiable from the church’s own records. However, the grand jury believes that because of lost records or fear of coming forward, there are at least a thousand more unidentified victims.

What abuses were uncovered in the investigation?

The report documents hundreds of allegations by approximately a thousand victims.

“Even out of these hundreds of odious stories, some stood out,” the report notes. Here are a few examples of the abuses found in the investigation:

One priest impregnated a 17-year old, forged the head pastor’s signature on a marriage certificate, then divorced the girl months later. Despite having sex with a minor, despite fathering a child, despite being married and being divorced, the priest was permitted to stay in ministry thanks to the diocese’s efforts to find a “benevolent bishop” in another state willing to take him on.

Another priest, grooming his middle-school students for oral sex, taught them how Mary had to “bite off the cord” and “lick” Jesus clean after he was born. It took another 15 years, and numerous additional reports of abuse, before the diocese finally removed the priest from ministry.

A priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg abused five sisters in a single family, despite prior reports that were never acted on. In addition to sex acts, the priest collected samples of the girls’ urine, pubic hair, and menstrual blood. Eventually, his house was searched, and his collection was found.

In one case a priest got a minor girl pregnant and arranged an abortion. The bishop expressed his feelings in a letter—not to the victim, but to the rapist—saying, “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.”

One priest raped a 7-year-old girl while he was visiting her in the hospital after she’d had her tonsils out.

One priest made a 9-year-old give him oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him.

One priest was willing to admit to molesting boys, but denied reports from two girls who had been abused; “they don’t have a penis,” he explained.

Yet another priest finally decided to quit after years of child abuse complaints, but asked for, and received, a letter of reference for his next job—at Walt Disney World

How were the dioceses able to hide the abuse?

The grand jury report makes clear there was a conspiracy by church officials to hide the sexual abuses of children:

While each church district had its idiosyncrasies, the pattern was pretty much the same. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid “scandal.” That is not our word, but theirs; it appears over and over again in the documents we recovered. Abuse complaints were kept locked up in a “secret archive.” That is not our word, but theirs; the church’s Code of Canon Law specifically requires the diocese to maintain such an archive. Only the bishop can have the key.

With help from the FBI, the grand jury was able to analyze the evidence and identify a series of practices that they said were “like a playbook for concealing the truth.” The seven practices identified were:

First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocese documents. Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”

Second, don’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel. Instead, assign fellow clergy members to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.

Third, for an appearance of integrity, send priests for “evaluation” at church-run psychiatric treatment centers. Allow these experts to “diagnose” whether the priest was a pedophile, based largely on the priest’s “self-reports,” and regardless of whether the priest had actually engaged in sexual contact with a child.

Fourth, when a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on “sick leave,” or suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Or say nothing at all.

Fifth, even if a priest is raping children, keep providing him housing and living expenses, although he may be using these resources to facilitate more sexual assaults.

Sixth, if a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.

Finally and above all, don’t tell the police. Child sexual abuse, even short of actual penetration, is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personnel matter, “in house.”

What were the grand jury’s recommendations?

The grand jury made four recommendations:

(1) That the criminal statute of limitations for sexual offenses against minors be completely abolished.

(2) The creation of a “civil window” law, which would let older victims sue the diocese for abuse that occurred when they were children.

(3) Improvement to the law for mandated reporting of abuse.

(4) That non-disclosure agreements not apply to criminal investigations.

How does this scandal compare to previous abuses scandals by the Catholic Church in America?

In a 2016 report by a grand jury investigating the Pennsylvania dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown, 50 abusers were named. In a 2005 report by a grand jury investigating the Philadelphia archdiocese, more than 60 abusers were named. In the 2002 investigation of the archdiocese of Boston—featured in the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight—the estimated number of abusive priests was between 150 and 250.

As the grand jury notes, “We believe ours is the largest grand jury report of its kind to date.”