Sex-abuse report looms over Catholic dioceses
By Peter Smith
April 16, 2018
Since July 2016, a grand jury seated in Pittsburgh has been quietly hearing testimony on alleged rape and sexual abuse of children by priests and others associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
The scope of the investigation spans seven decades and from one end of Pennsylvania to the other.
What is expected in the coming weeks is a report that could be the most comprehensive and geographically expansive official report ever produced in the United States on the enormity of the scandal.
The 40th Statewide Grand Jury had an 18-month term, extended by four months to the end of April, according to those familiar with its work.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro is refusing to confirm anything about the grand jury beyond the single indictment it has yielded so far — that of a Greensburg priest, the Rev. John Sweeney, who faces a June trial on a charge of sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy in the 1990s.
But if the past is any indication, the investigation is likely to yield a report horrific in detail and blistering in its censure of church authorities who may have failed to protect victims as far back as the mid-20th century.
Two years ago, a previous grand jury investigating the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown reported “staggering and sobering” findings that about 50 priests and other church workers molested hundreds of children, most of the incidents occurring in the mid- and late 20th century. It faulted bishops for failing to respond adequately.
Many of the accused are dead, and some of those living denied the charges. Because of the passage of time, no alleged abuser was criminally charged.
A related report did lead to indictments of two Franciscan superiors on charges of failing to protect children from an abusive friar. Their Blair County trial is scheduled for next month.
Altoona-Johnstown is the smallest Catholic diocese in the state. The six dioceses that are known to be under investigation have a combined Catholic population at least 15 times as large.
The current grand jury subpoenaed records from the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Allentown, Scranton, Harrisburg and Erie. The Erie diocese pre-emptively released a list this month of 51 priests and others credibly accused of abuse.
Using those numbers as a baseline, it would not be surprising if the statewide report lists hundreds of perpetrators.
(The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, already the subject of withering grand jury reports in years past, is not expected to be a focus here.)
Although some grand juries and state attorneys general have done intensive investigations of particular dioceses, victims’ advocates say the multi-diocese investigation in Pennsylvania is unique in this country.
“I think it’s going to be bad,” said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, a victims’ advocacy group. “It’s good that we’re going to learn more, but it’s sad.”
The closest parallel, he and others said, is in Australia, where a commission reported last year that tens of thousands of children suffered abuse over decades in churches — Catholic and otherwise — as well as religious and secular schools and institutions.
Attorney General Shapiro restricted his public comments to the pending cases of Father Sweeney and the Franciscans.
“I just continue to be so impressed by those victims who are raising their voices,” Mr. Shapiro said. “I hear them, I believe them.”
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said the diocese has cooperated with the investigation, including turning over any files that pertained to the sexual abuse of children.
“I'm just hoping we’re going to get a fair hearing, and most important of all, what’s going to happen is going to be constructive and helpful to victims,” Bishop Zubik said.
His concern, he said, is whether people will “be making judgments on decisions that were made 20 or 30 years ago based on what the expectations are in 2018.”
He added: “Obviously people’s understanding over what has happened over the course of all these years has changed across society.”
He said grand juries would find similar results if they looked at other institutions.
“Especially in southwestern Pennsylvania, picking up the newspapers over the last couple of years, [one sees] these same issues certainly within the context of public schools,” he said. “And now it’s spreading into other venues as well.”
Bishop Zubik credited his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington, D.C., with instituting policies that barred abusers from ministry years before such became the national standard.
The diocese’s current approach was evident last week when a deacon was arrested in a police sting, unrelated to the grand jury, and charged with unlawful contact with a minor.
The diocese immediately suspended him and notified news media and the parishioners where he worked.
Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala, said that under Cardinal Wuerl and Bishop Zubik, “the diocese has never failed to quickly and fully inform our office when they have discovered credible evidence of potential criminal and abusive behavior.”
Given its history of cooperation, Nick Cafardi — a former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board for the protection of minors — said he doesn’t expect major surprises from Pittsburgh in the grand jury report.
As for the other dioceses, “I pray that none of them followed Philadelphia's lead, because Philadelphia set the standard for how not to handle the crisis,” Mr. Cafardi, dean emeritus at the Duquesne University School of Law, said via email. “Unfortunately, among the Pennsylvania dioceses, Philadelphia has always been extremely influential for better or for worse.”
Victims’ advocate Robert Hoatson said he has spoken to victims who have have testified to the Pennsylvania grand jury.
“It’s going to be a devastating report for the Catholic Church and it’s going to point out not only the extent of sexual abuse of children but the massive cover-up by the hierarchy,” Mr. Hoatson, president of the group Road to Recovery, predicted.
“My only fear is that nobody will be indicted as a result” because of offenses that happened too long ago to be prosecuted under the statute of limitations, Mr. Hoatson said.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, said he testified to the grand jury about being sexually abused as a boy in the Allentown diocese by the late Rev. Edward Graff, who died in 2002 as dozens of allegations of abuse poured in.
Mr. Rozzi hopes the forthcoming report would help people understand the basis for his proposed legislation that would open a two-year window for people who allege child sexual abuse in the past to take legal action.
That legislation, pushed in the wake of the Altoona-Johnstown report, fell short last year amid fierce resistance by Catholic leaders who said it would financially devastate schools, charities and other ministries, hurting people who were not at fault.
But Mr. Rozzi said claimants would still have to convince a court of their claims.
“A lot of these are older, so it’s going to be a little tougher” he said. “But at the end of the day that’s what victims want, to go into court and say, ‘This happened to me and someone’s going to have to be accountable.’ ”
Another witness, former priest James Faluszczak of Buffalo, N.Y., said he came to Pittsburgh to testify before the grand jury about being molested as a boy by a priest in the Erie diocese.
“My hopes are that they uncover not just individual perpetrators and their victims, but that the grand jury more than anything uncovers the conspiracy that the church has engaged in for multiple decades,” he said.