Guest editorial | Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg should fully reckon with the harm caused to victims of childhood sexual abuse

The Tribune Democrat
March 2, 2020

Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Harrisburg Diocese celebrates Mass at the Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick in Harrisburg. On Wednesday, the Diocese of Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy, six months after disclosing it had paid millions of dollars to people sexually abused as children by its clerics.

The following editorial appeared in LNP. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.

The Catholic prayer known as the “Act of Contrition” is prayed when seeking forgiveness.

The prayer says nothing about shielding oneself from the consequences of one’s sins. It’s a simple and penitential plea, an acceptance of responsibility and a resolution to do better.

If only that had been the guiding principle of the Roman Catholic Church in its handling of priestly sexual abuse of children.

Instead, church officials – in the Diocese of Harrisburg and around the world – sought to cover up the sins of their priests and the horrific harm they had done to vulnerable children.

Bishops passed offending priests from parish to parish, and then locked documents away in secret archives to which only they held the keys. And when victims pressed for the right to sue their abusers and those who enabled their abuse, the church hired lobbyists to beat back legislation that would have given victims that opportunity.

Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer rightly referred to the church’s “horrific past” at the news conference on Feb. 19. But then he left the details to lawyers for the diocese.

As The Inquirer and Spotlight PA reported, the “filings revealed a complex financial structure in which much of what the diocese once owned was moved in 2009 into charitable trusts, which it maintains are beyond the reach of court judgments and bankruptcy creditors. ... Diocesan lawyers say the affiliated charitable trusts were established to ensure the church could continue to serve its core functions of ministry, Catholic education and charitable service. It is just one tactic dioceses nationwide have employed to ensure their survival as the clergy sex abuse crisis endures.”

We’re not quibbling with the church’s decision to pursue bankruptcy.

We’re just dismayed by the church’s continuing failure to fully face the harm it has caused.

Carolyn Fortney and her sister, Lara Fortney-McKeever, both were sexually abused as children by the Rev. Augustine Giella in their Dauphin County parish. So, too, were three of their sisters. Carolyn and Lara were guests on WITF’s “Smart Talk.”

The sisters said they found it difficult to watch the Feb. 19 news conference – they felt as if the diocese was blaming them and other abuse victims for its financial woes. (Fortney-McKeever and her sister Patty have filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese.)

They spoke of their parents’ heartbreak over the church’s actions, and of the desire of their elderly mother to see her daughters get their day in court.

And they pushed back against the notion that taking the diocese to court is about money.

The point of litigation, they said, is the discovery – forcing the diocese through subpoenas to hand over the documents that detailed their abuse and the attempts to cover it up.

They particularly objected to a statement by Matthew Haverstick, a lawyer for the diocese, who said the bankruptcy filing would offer survivors the transparency they sought.

The sisters said victims aren’t looking for financial transparency from the diocese. They’re looking for the pieces of the puzzle – Who knew about the abuse? Who covered it up and why? – they need to find some peace.

“You cannot put a price tag on validation. And you cannot put a price tag on reclaiming power,” Benjamin Andreozzi, an attorney representing Fortney-McKeever, said on “Smart Talk.”

“And the way that you do that is by confronting the individuals who are responsible for your abuse.”

The Diocese of Harrisburg is trying to keep that from happening.

And that is the sin for which it keeps failing to seek penance.

Haverstick said on “Smart Talk” that the Diocese of Harrisburg is trying to reorganize financially so that it can keep serving as many people as possible, while also doing right by abuse victims.

He used the analogy of a father trying to feed his children with just one piece of bread. Rather than giving all of the bread to just one child, the father cuts it into pieces and feeds them all.

The implication: There is no Christ-like miracle of the loaves and fishes coming. The church must be realistic about its finances and how it can survive in the long term.

And we understand that. We also understand that the diocese is, as Haverstick explained to LNP LancasterOnline’s Earle Cornelius, attempting via the bankruptcy filing to get its insurance carriers to help cover the costs of abuse claims.

But we find this alarming: Andreozzi believes the diocese will be able to extinguish outstanding survivor claims in the Chapter 11 reorganization, and pay victims far less than it might in a jury trial. The old, culpable corporate entity will be gone, replaced by a shiny new one, free from the prospect of facing those survivors in court.

So even if the Pennsylvania General Assembly eventually passes statutes of limitation reform and allows older victims to seek justice in civil court, the toll on the diocese will be lessened. (The chances of reform were made more likely by the recent announcement that Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati – a staunch church ally – won’t seek reelection.)

A 2019 Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling in the case of church abuse survivor Renee Rice also might enable victims to sue over decades-old sexual abuse.

Haverstick acknowledged to LNP LancasterOnline that the Rice ruling played a significant role in the diocese’s decision to pursue bankruptcy.

“It was exposure we had not counted on at the time we did the survivors’ compensation fund,” Haverstick said. “It put us back in peril for any one or two claims that could possibly put the diocese out of business.”

It’s no wonder the Fortney sisters thought the diocese was blaming abuse victims for its financial problems.

It might be tempting for Catholics in the pews to do the same, especially if they end up paying with the loss of the parishes and parochial schools on which their families depend.

Such blame would be misplaced, however. For too long, bishops and other church officials participated in covering up the horrific sexual abuse of children. And the price of their unconscionable behavior still is being paid.

As retired Millersville University professor Dennis B. Downey wrote in our Feb. 23 Perspective section, “whether in Harrisburg or the church universal, it did not have to come to this.”

Boy Scouts promise to “help other people at all times” and to stay “mentally awake.”

Like too many leaders of the Catholic Church, leaders of the Boy Scouts of America failed the children they were supposed to protect. They harmed the children they were meant to help and were slow to awaken to that harm.

The Boy Scouts of America also declared bankruptcy recently, seeking to survive its own barrage of lawsuits from victims of sexual abuse.

And according to The Associated Press, the organization now is faced with the prospect of selling “some of their vast property holdings, including campgrounds and hiking trails, to raise money for a victims’ fund that could top $1 billion.”

Again, we implore those who may be affected by the fallout to place the blame where it belongs – on the shoulders of those who waited far too long to do the right thing.

People rightly look to venerated institutions, such as the Catholic Church and the Scouts, to provide examples of moral leadership.

To provide such leadership, these institutions have to be willing to accept responsibility for their transgressions.

Filing for bankruptcy may protect financial assets. Much more is required to protect moral assets.


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