Reading the Grand Jury Report
Painful But Needed

Philadelphia Inquirer
September 25, 2005

Cardinal Justin Rigali is right about one thing.

The Philadelphia grand jury report accusing Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia leaders of shielding sexually abusive priests for decades - until as recently as several years ago - isn't G-rated reading.

The grand jury findings issued at mid-week by District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham do contain "explanations of the abuse" that are "very graphic," as the Philadelphia archbishop put it.

What else could be expected, though, from a harrowing account of 63 clergymen who preyed on hundreds of children?

Their crimes included rape and other vile forms of sexual abuse of children. Compounding the evil, their victims were denied justice in most cases, the grand jury found; assaults were overlooked or covered up by church officials whose first priority was avoiding scandal.

The grand jury report is no bedtime story, for sure.

But it's not really the place of the person who now leads the institution that tolerated these evils to offer an opinion on the merits of reading the grand jury report.

"I don't think it is of value to families," the spiritual leader of 1.3 million area Roman Catholics said in an interview Thursday.

A respectful dissent: Nothing could be of greater value to parents than knowledge that alerts them to dangers their children could face.

This report does just that, and much more. It needs to be read widely. The archdiocese needs to face up to the jury's conclusions on official inaction - which it has yet to do, and seems to want to avoid doing by throwing up the usual smokescreen words such as "slanted."

Church officials stress they've taken a number of steps to prevent future abuses. Duly noted. Good work. But you can hardly expect the larger community to stand up and applaud, after what went on before.

If church officials seek forgiveness, they should consider a basic act of penance: Support the state legal reforms to protect victims' rights that are warranted by the disclosures. Harrisburg lawmakers need to move ahead, regardless.

Meantime, church leaders only hurt their credibility by seeking to discredit the clergy-abuse grand jury's convincing findings.

Day One, the official stance was that the report was "reckless rhetoric" and anti-Catholic. Day Two, the cardinal said, "The archdiocese acknowledges and completely repents mistakes made in the handling of some cases."

Neither lawyerly thunder nor mistakes-were-made defenses equals an adequate response to the jury's shocking findings.

The panel alleged (and the archdiocese denied) that Cardinal Rigali's immediate predecessor, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, and Cardinal John Krol "excused and enabled the abuse." The two, according to the report, shielded predators and moved them to parishes without alerting parishioners, much less civil authorities.

Due to gaps in state law and statutes of limitation, not a single abuser or church official can be brought to justice in a criminal court, Abraham says.

If she's right, that's appalling. The law must change.

The state's statute of limitation on prosecuting sexual abuse against minors has been expanded to age 30 for victims. Now it's time to study dropping the limit altogether, as the jury recommended.

Similarly, child-protection laws that enabled church officials to duck - legally, if not morally - the duty to alert authorities must be tightened.

Finally, there's the question of letting long-past abuse victims have their day in court. Civil suits on their behalf are barred by statute limits.

California charted a smart course to justice for victims: Lawmakers opened a one-year window during which hundreds of older claims were filed.

In one California diocese, a $100 million settlement resulted from claims against three-dozen clerics by 90 victims. If proven against the Philadelphia archdiocese, similar claims could be costly.

While hefty financial awards cannot by themselves heal, they can make healing more possible - by covering services such as the lifelong counseling needed by some victims. And putting a steep price tag on clergy abuse and official inaction should serve as a deterrent.

Evil unpunished is evil emboldened.


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