#MeToo, earlier scandals mean pending clergy sex abuse report can't be 'a small problem'
By Ivey Dejesus
May 29, 2018
|The landscape has changed drastically across the country and world since recent clergy sex abuse scandals out of Boston and Philadelphia. The pending grand jury report into allegations across six dioceses in Pennsylvania come amid a changing landscape. File photo shows Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, left, and Bishop Timothy Senior, right, as Pope Francis, addresses a gathering in Saint Martin's Chapel at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Wynnewood, Pa.|
Photo by Mel Evans
|In the wake of a spate of clergy sex abuse scandals, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the mid-2000s implemented new policies to protect minors from predators and expose predators to law enforcement.|
Photo by Patrick Semansky
In the mid-2000s, when then-Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham launched an investigation into clergy sex abuse and cover-up in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, she was assailed for waging a campaign against the Roman Catholic Church.
It was a virtual repeat of what had played out just a few years prior in 2002 in Boston. That year, officials at the Archdiocese of Boston accused The Boston Globe of mounting an anti-Catholic agenda after the paper published a series of scathing reports detailing decades of molestation of thousands of children by priests and its systemic cover up by church officials.
At times, both in Philadelphia and Boston, Catholics rallied behind the church and defended their faith as legions came to terms with revelations of the assaults.
Nearly a decade later, a pending grand jury investigation report into clergy sex abuse allegations and cover-up across six dioceses in Pennsylvania stands against a markedly changed landscape.
In the intervening years, the 1.2 billion-strong church has been rocked by a string of equally scathing reports of child sex abuse, which regardless of their origins - archdioceses in Europe, Australia and Latin America - have at times implicated the Vatican.
Pennsylvania itself in 2016 reeled in the aftermath of a grand jury investigation by the state Office of Attorney General that substantiated nearly identical patterns of decades-long sexual abuse of children and cover-up by church officials.
Subsequently, the public has less tolerance for the church's response and handling of the systemic and escalating scandal. Add to that the mounting outrage in this country in response to a string of sexual misconduct and sexual assault cases - which have engendered the #MeToo and Time'sUp movements - and you have a vastly different backdrop to the pending grand jury report in Pennsylvania.
"The net result is that no diocese can expect anymore to be able to say it's just a small problem," said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the nation's leading advocates for reform to child sex crime laws. "Everyone is now well aware it's a systemic problem in the church and that it's not just a problem from the past."
In September 2016, the state Office of Attorney General launched the investigation into allegations of child sex abuse across the six dioceses: Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Erie, Allentown and Greensburg.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro last week indicated he would release the report by the end of June.
In the past, in the wake of scathing reports bishops qualified the abuse as something from the past, pointing to new policies that were put in place in the mid-2000s to protect minors and hand over to law enforcement known predators.
But already that posturing has been challenged.
Ahead of the release of the findings of the latest grand jury investigation, authorities have indicted two priests as a result of the investigation: Father David Poulson in the Diocese of Erie and John Sweeney in the Diocese of Greensburg.
Hamilton said the arrests - the charges within the timeframe allowed by law - serve as reminders that the abuse remains systemic and ongoing.
"The standard operating procedure for bishops in response to any revelations of abuse was to say that this was decades ago. That we now have a gold standard for child protection and therefore if you are investigating now it's just an anti-Catholic bias....but that line has lost all of its force."
What's more, amid mounting sex assault scandals, victims have been empowered to come forth - not just from within the Catholic community but as seen by the voices of victims allegedly abused by some of the most powerful people in the country, including lawmakers, politicians, religious leaders, Hollywood powerhouses and sports figures.
"What is occurring is that the public is becoming aware that you have to keep children safe even in the presence of priests," said Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases and has represented hundreds of victims in lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
"That is important. You have to think of the Catholic Church in terms of centuries. It's not going to change its ways easily given its power and financial influence but, again, because of what is happening and what has happened in Boston and Philadelphia and the aggressiveness of states such as Pennsylvania in pursuing clergy sex abuse and other predators...the unified effort, whether it be states, countries or individuals in pursuing the crimes committed have raised public awareness."
Garabedian, who was prominently played by Stanley Tucci in the film "Spotlight," adds that grand jury investigations provide a measure of transparency for victims that allows them an opportunity to heal, as well as gain a sense of empowerment in their numbers.
"Many victims - because of grand jury investigations - now realize they are not the only ones who were sexually abused and they are united and can be an effective force in confronting clergy sex abuse."
The pending grand jury report marks the latest chapter in a scandal that has taken a toll on the church. It has dealt a financial fallout to the church in billions in settlements as well as dwindling charitable donations. And it has shrunk the ranks of a historically steadfast flock.
"I think we've come to the point where the church realizes this cannot go on," said Nick Ingala, spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a worldwide movement of Catholics working to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse and the integrity of the church and its clergy.
"I'm not saying they are totally transparent. You still have cases where they have not come forward with complete lists of priests."
No doubt thousands of victims struggle decades after their abuse to deal with the trauma of the abuse. Studies have estimated that more than 10,000 people have been abused by a Catholic priest or Catholic Church official or staff.
The fallout from the scandal has also been felt among the pews on Sunday: In the years since the reports from The Boston Globe and out of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, attendance at Mass has continued to dwindle.
The most recent data from a Gallup survey finds that attendance at Catholic Mass is down to a 39 percent weekly average over the past 10 years.
From 2005-2008, Catholics reported attending Mass on a 45 percent average within seven days, but it has since dropped 6 percent from 2014-2017.
Some analysts point to generational trends in Mass attendance, but others correlate the historic drop to the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal.
To be sure, the church has endeavored to overhaul itself and has put in place incremental changes and a degree of transparency. Some dioceses have been quick to take action in the face of recent incidents or allegations of priests abusing children.
The Diocese of Erie, for instance, recently released the names of 57 individuals - clergy and staff - that have been credibly accused of child sexual molestation.
"I think it's fair to say that the historic abuse definitely occurred and it definitely was very bad but I think these types of public reports have engendered these incremental changes," Ingala said.
The one lingering area of pushback from the church, he adds, is in the area of justice for survivors - whether compensation or the reform of laws that continue to impede victims from pursuing their legal recourse. Most child victims of abuse have become adults long before they are prepared to come forward with reports of their abuse. For most, the statute of limitations have expired - meaning they have no legal recourse to bring predators to justice.
"The treatment of survivors has not come as far as child protection," Ingala said. "We certainly want total child protection and we want to see justice and healing for all survivors."
Ingala, whose organization Voice of the Faithful is headquartered in Boston, where it was launched, says the Catholic community in that city has come a long way from the devastation of 2002. He credits Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley in helping to shepherd a rehabilitation for the Catholic Community in Boston, but warns that the archdiocese still has a long way to go to restore the culture of faith among its parishioners it once had.
Jason Berry, an acclaimed author and reporter who investigated sexual abuse in the priesthood in New Orleans and the worldwide church, said the current pulse in the country leans in favor of children and victims and not towards protecting a cherished church.
"People today are worried about the kids. They are not knee jerk about the institution but feel justice needs to be done," Berry said.
He notes that the one thing arguably most feared by the church is the one thing prosecutors - and victims - need most to impart a different impact out of the pending grand jury report: a change in the law.
"The only real weapon that government has beyond prosecutors who are willing to go in and do the excavation work to hold someone in hierarchy responsible.....in the final measure is really changing the statutes of limitation - the law that forces the church to bargain, to negotiate and to get into some sort of posture where they won't do this anymore."
To date few priests or bishops have been prosecuted in this country, particularly considering the number of estimated victims.
Berry, author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, is amazed by what he says is a passivity from among Catholics towards the church.
"It struck me when doing the last book how people do not expect a great deal of accountability from the church," he said. "I think what they want is to believe that bishops and priests are able custodians of the belief system...People are appalled. They don't want it to happen again. They want justice to take its course but ....there is such a degree of passivity."
Ultimately, Berry agrees with other experts: that htis time around the onus is on lawmakers. The idea that once prosecutors and lawmakers were afraid of offending Catholic voters no longer holds sway.
"I don't think people see it that way anymore," he said. "I think there are prosecutors and officers of the law who see this happening and they see it happening in other institutions and when the questions mount and they don't get enough answers, they decide to take stronger steps."