One year after explosive Catholic church investigation in Pennsylvania: 300 priests, 1,000 victims, no state action

By Paul Muschick
Morning Call
August 9, 2019

Former priest James Faluszczak, who says he was molested by a priest as a teenager, wipes away tears as others such as Juliann Bortz (in blue), another victim of priest sexual abuse, supports him as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro releases a grand jury report into abuses in the church last August.

The cries for justice were deafening last August after a Pennsylvania grand jury disclosed accusations that hundreds of priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children, and that their sins were covered up by the Catholic church and others.

Those cries still haven’t been answered.

The grand jury recommended that state lawmakers allow future sexual abusers to be criminally prosecuted no matter how long it takes for them to be exposed. It pointed out that’s the law in more than half of the country. It also urged that long-ago victims be allowed to sue retroactively.

Lawmakers did nothing.

The lack of action is disturbing and doesn’t do justice to the work of the grand jury, which was groundbreaking on several levels.

* It was perhaps the most explosive expose since The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation in 2002.

* It covered nearly the entire state, while other investigations were regional.

* It named priests going back decades and went into great detail, much of it stomach-turning, of what they were accused of doing.

* It pulled many of those details from the church’s own files, its “secret archives.”

* It prompted at least 14 other state attorneys general to launch investigations or reviews of their dioceses.

The grand jury wrote: “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 ... groped ... Some were raped ... 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.

"As a consequence of the cover-up, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.”

The church was put on the defensive, and it eventually came up with a plan to address the scandal. While that plan is insufficient, at least it’s a step forward.

Pennsylvania lawmakers, on the other hand, reacted like they often do when presented with a crisis. Say you feel for victims, just as you do when you’re asked to address gun violence. Then stall and bicker until the legislative session runs out.

The grand jury recommended:

* Eliminating age limits for victims of sexual abuse in childhood to file criminal complaints. The law now requires they be made by the age of 50.

* Opening a retroactive “civil window” to allow victims who have been barred by the statute of limitations to sue. The law now gives people 12 years to file a complaint once they reach age 18.

* Tightening the law that requires teachers, clergy, police and other professionals to report abuse.

* Eliminating nondisclosure agreements that bar victims from cooperating in criminal prosecutions.

The Pennsylvania Legislature didn’t enact any of them.

Other states have stood up for victims.

On Wednesday — coincidentally the one-year anniversary of the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report — a new law takes effect in New York. It will allow a one-year window for retroactive lawsuits, and increases the statue of limitations for lawsuits and criminal charges to be filed in sexual abuse cases.

California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii took action years ago.

The hang-up last year in Pennsylvania was over who could be sued. Senate leaders wanted to limit lawsuits to being filed against individuals, not the church. The House wanted both to be liable.

Lawmakers are trying again this year, with various bills pending.

Will they feel additional pressure amid another brewing scandal of children being molested systemically, this time by Boy Scout leaders? Don’t bet on it.

As they debate, I encourage them to read the grand jury’s recommendation, which shares the story of abuse victim “Al.”

He told how when he was in sixth grade, a priest put him in a locked room, made him take off his pants and molested him. The priest warned that he’d go to hell if he told anyone.

Al flunked sixth grade. He later began drinking, as much as a bottle of whiskey a day. He was discharged from the Navy because of post-traumatic stress disorder. He tried killing himself several times and spent time in a psychiatric hospital.

The grand jury wrote, “Maybe, if he’d had money for good medical and psychological resources, Al’s life wouldn’t have been quite so hard after that priest knocked it off track.

“Maybe, if he could file a lawsuit now, he could make up for some of the pain and suffering.”

The church’s response to the report included dioceses, Allentown among them, starting victim compensation funds. Allentown says it has provided “millions of dollars." It also cut jobs and froze pay as a consequence.

I suspect the dioceses did that partly to show lawmakers that victims were being taken care of, so the Legislature wouldn’t allow more costly retroactive lawsuits.

The Allentown Diocese, which had 37 priests named in the grand jury report, created the position of secretary for youth protection and Catholic human services. It oversees abuse prevention and child safety programs.

Along with other dioceses nationwide, Allentown published names of accused priests, including 15 not mentioned by the grand jury. The transparency can’t hurt, but it has little impact if those clergy are dead or if accusations against the living are too old to prosecute or sue over.

The biggest response from the Catholic church came in May when Pope Francis offered a new plan for how it will handle clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

It requires priests and nuns around the world to report abuse and cover-ups to church authorities. It requires dioceses to set up systems to take complaints; imposes time limits on investigations; sets procedures for investigating allegations against high-ranking clergy; and requires medical care and counseling to be offered to victims.

But he did not require law enforcement to be notified about allegations.

That’s not such a big deal in the United States. U.S. clergy already are governed by a policy requiring them to notify police of suspected abuse. That was enacted in 2002 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And in Pennsylvania, clergy are “mandated reporters” and must notify the state Department of Human Services, which could notify police.

But it leaves a gaping hole in other countries. Remember, this is a global problem.

The Vatican has long feared that a universal requirement to notify law enforcement could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority. That is a concern. But it’s a greater concern that a child predator could go unchecked.

There still is time for the church and state lawmakers to take stronger action. There is no statute of limitations on that. It’s important to keep the pressure on, to make sure they eventually do.




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