Late Thursday afternoon, two days after the release of a scathing grand jury report chronicling decades of clergy sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses, the Vatican responded with a brief statement, saying that it “treats with great seriousness” the work of the grand jury, “condemns unequivocally the sexual abuse of minors,” and believes “both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur,” should be held accountable.
Outraged Pennsylvania child welfare experts, parents, and advocates say that if the Catholic Church doesn’t change its self-protective stance and behaviors, the church remains guilty of privileging predators over victims, and imperils its own credibility as a religious institution.
“I don’t know that they come back from this,” Angela Liddle, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Child Support Alliance, said, “and I don’t know if they should.”
At every turn, those calling for reform have been “outmaneuvered and outspent by the Catholic Church,” said Linda Crockett, an abuse survivor who directs Safe Church/Safe Places at the Samaritan Counseling Center in Lancaster County, Penn. “Listening to the bishops offer apologies and assurances that this will never happen again doesn’t ring true to me.”
The report identified more than 1,000 child victims — there are likely many more victims who never came forward or whose records were lost — and uncovered 300 “predator priests” credibly accused of being abusers. Until June 27, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that it be made public, its release had been blocked by about two dozen current and former clergy who claimed it would violate their rights. Portions are still redacted.
The report outlined the disturbing specifics, including multiple accounts of rape, a priest-run pornography ring, a naked boy forced to depict a crucified Christ, a secret wedding, an abortion, and more, saying, “… all of [the victims] were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.”
Though the release of the report is an acknowledgement of the harm done to victims, said Tim Lennon, who heads the Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests, it doesn’t bring justice to victims.
Lennon added that if Pope Francis was serious about dealing with sexual abuse, he would demand that every diocese open its books (the church has been shaken by recent scandals as far away as Chile and Australia, and as close to Pennsylvania as Washington, D.C.)
“So far that hasn’t happened,” Lennon said. “So, when you talk about the spiritual, psychological physical, and emotional damage done to children and weigh that against the spiritual words they saw it just doesn’t compare.”
And grand jury reports alone aren’t going to alter the clerical culture of secrecy, says Kathy Kane, one of the cofounders of Catholics4Change, formed to hold church leaders accountable in the wake of prior sex abuse scandals.
“[Change] has to be by laws, by exposure, by threats, and by parents becoming aware of how deep the problem runs,” Kane said.
As a story from the Philadelphia Inquirer details, responses from the bishops who currently head the dioceses in question have varied. A few, including Harrisburg and Erie, opened their archives in advance of the release, publicizing the names of clergy against whom there were “credible” abuse claims. Erie’s Lawrence Persico was the only bishop who elected to appear before the grand jury in person.
Bishops need work to restore public trust, Pennsylvania Child Support Alliance’s Liddle said, and to communicate — more effectively than they have done so far — that they are not above the law.
“I’m not sure they can do that,” she said.
One start? Come out in favor of the four grand jury recommendations, said Liddle. These include getting rid of the criminal statute of limitations as well as the window for civil suits, tightening mandated reporting laws, and making it clear that non-disclosure (confidentiality) agreements don’t apply to criminal behavior.
This fall, the Pennsylvania Legislature will have the chance to enact one grand jury recommendation: changing state law by considering eliminating the statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions as well as providing a two-year retroactive opportunity for civil lawsuits (something local church leaders have lobbied against vigorously).
State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks County), a clergy abuse survivor, has been pushing for reform since he was elected in 2012. While the Pennsylvania House passed Rozzi’s measure two years ago, it was defeated in the state Senate. Republican House leader David Reed stated he expects to bring a similar bill up for a vote this fall.
“The public needs to hold legislative leaders accountable,” Rozzi told Sojourners. “ We have the opportunity to do the rights things and make things right for victims.”
Referring to the bishops, Rozzi added: “I haven’t seen anyone be courageous. I haven’t seen one bishop come out and take accountability. Stop patting yourself on the back like you did something. Would I love to see a bishop be courageous and brave like the victims? I haven’t seen one yet.”
Advocates point out that changing policies would be ineffectual without a system-wide change in clerical culture — and the problem is larger than the Catholic Church.
While Crockett and her team at Safe Church/Safe Places have helped congregations run trainings for about 70 churches, she says that’s just a drop in the bucket. But she hasn’t abandoned hope for widespread change – and more accountability.
“I think that the massive institutional failures we have seen in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements may just bring about that reckoning that is long overdue, one where constituents may demand that not only the perpetrators but the bystanders be held accountable,” Crockett said.
The conclusion of the report?
“Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted. Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”