By: ISDA President Basil M. Russo
As a former judge and attorney I have been required to write much in my lifetime on the most serious of matters, including life and death, and punishment and mercy. Yet, nothing has been as painful or difficult for me to write about as what follows.
On Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released its grand jury report on one of the latest sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
As Catholics, we have a moral responsibility to protect our church and our children from those who would harm or abuse them.
In order to do so, we need to understand the severity and scope of this heinous sex abuse scandal that has been hidden from us for decades.
Let’s begin by reading the first three paragraphs of the 1,300-page grand jury report:
We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. 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.
We were given the job of investigating child sex abuse in six dioceses–every diocese in the state except Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, which were the subject of previous grand juries. The six dioceses account for 54 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse. We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. It contained credible allegations against over 300 predator priests. Over 1,000 child victims were identifiable, from the churches own records. We believe that the real number — of children whose records were lost, or were afraid to ever come forward — is in the thousands.
Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. 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.
To fully understand the scope of this scandal, we must remember that the number of predator priests and the child victims enumerated in this report, only represent six dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania. If we extrapolate these figures over all 50 states, there are actually tens of thousands of children who were abused, thousands of priests who were abusers, and hundreds of bishops, cardinals — and perhaps even pontiffs — who concealed the truth. Indeed, the cover-up by the church’s hierarchy is every bit as devastating as the molestation crimes themselves.
This is what the grand jury report said about how these crimes were hidden:
This section of the report addresses each diocese individually, through two or more case studies that provide examples of the abuse that occurred and the manner in which diocesan leaders “managed” it. While each church district had its own idiosyncrasies, the pattern was pretty much the same. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid “scandal.” This is not our word, but theirs; it appears over and over again in the documents we recovered. Abuse reports were kept locked away in a “secret archive.” This is not our word, but theirs; the church’s Code of Cannon Law specifically requires the diocese to maintain such an archive. Only the bishop can have a key.
The strategies were so common that they were susceptible to behavior analysis by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For our benefit, the FBI agreed to assign members of its national Center for Analysis of Violent Crime to review a significant portion of the evidence received by the grand jury. Some agents testified before us that they had identified a series of practices that regularly appeared, in curious configurations, in the diocese files they had analyzed. It’s like a playbook for concealing the truth.
First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocesan 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 the child.
Fourth, when a priest does need 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 the 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 sexual penetration, is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personal matter, “in-house.”
This scandal has caused we as Catholics to feel sad, confused, ashamed, bitter and angry. It raises many questions that have no answers.
How were these vulnerable children allowed to be abused by men who were supposed to represent God in their lives?
How did our church allow so many pedophiles into the priesthood over decades of time?
What kind of sick cult mindset existed in our church’s hierarchy that motivated them to protect the pedophiles by concealing the truth, and thereby allowing thousands of more children to be abused?
The tragedy of this scandal is that it not only affected the lives of the child victims, who had their innocence and dignity stolen from them, but it also served to undermine the faith that every Catholic had in our church.
When the scandal begins to cause us to doubt our faith and our church, we need to think about the hundreds of thousands of good priests and nuns who have devoted their entire life to the service of God. It is that thought that allows us to believe our church will survive this horrific scandal.
But we as Catholics need to be vigilant and vocal in demanding that reforms be made in each of our parishes, all the way to the Vatican, to ensure that the priests and the church leaders who were involved in this scandal atone for their sins–not only before God, but also in our courts of law, and that necessary safeguards be implemented to ensure this type of depravity will never again be allowed to manifest itself in our church.
Access the entire grand jury report at The Washington Post.