Report reveals horrifying abuses by Catholic priests
The Catholic Church has been rocked to its foundations by a Pennsylvania grand jury report that provides horrifying details of seven decades of sexual abuse committed by more than 300 priests who were systematically protected by church leaders. More than 1,000 child victims were identified during an 18-month investigation launched by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, the most sweeping examination yet of the American Catholic Church’s handling of sex crimes. The report describes many of the alleged abuses in shocking detail. One priest forced a 9-year-old to perform oral sex on him, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water “to purify him.” Another was allowed to stay in the ministry after raping a 17-year-old girl and arranging for an abortion. In Pittsburgh, a group of priests used “whips, violence, and sadism” in sexually assaulting children, gave their victims special gold crosses to mark them as having been “groomed” for abuse, and created a child pornography ring. “Priests were raping little boys and girls,” the report says. “And the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.”
The grand jury heard testimony from dozens of witnesses and examined more than half a million internal church documents that Catholic officials referred to as the “secret archives,” which detailed strategies for keeping the information from getting out. The church constructed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” the grand jury wrote. Tactics included using euphemisms like “boundary issues” to describe assaults, lying to parishioners about why accused priests had been reassigned to new dioceses, and leaning on local officials to stop investigations.
In an unprecedented open letter to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis this week condemned clerical “atrocities,” and said “no effort must be spared” to prevent future abuses and cover-ups. “These wounds never go away,” Francis wrote. “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
What the editorials said
The pope’s words aren’t enough, said The Boston Globe. The rot in the Catholic Church runs deep. The Pennsylvania report comes just weeks after the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, who has been accused of sexually abusing children and seminarians. Abuse scandals have also rocked the church in Australia and Chile this year, and have occurred in a series of waves since the 1990s in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, and Australia. Pope Francis “needs to act. And he needs to act now.”
Civil authorities need to take action as well, said The Washington Post. Victims “often cannot speak for decades about the abuse they suffered as children.” But the Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars lobbying against laws extending the statute of limitations for criminal charges and lawsuits involving child sexual abuse. In Pennsylvania, child victims can file lawsuits only until age 30, meaning that none of the priests accused in the grand jury report can ever be held accountable. Lawmakers should “tear down the protections for pedophile priests.”
What the columnists said
If the priests described in the grand jury report were, say, Muslim immigrants, said Michael Brendan Dougherty in NationalReview.com, “we would be asking tough questions about the culture that produces abuse on this scale.” We’d be asking “what twisted form of political correctness” kept law enforcement from targeting this criminal network sooner. We might even debate closing our borders to people from countries where the gang operates. At the very least, other states should follow Pennsylvania’s lead with their own investigations. “If the church cannot govern itself from within, then it will be governed from without.”
The church’s perverse attitude toward sex has to change, said Andrew Sullivan in NYMag.com. “When no form of sex is allowed, all forms of sex can seem equally immoral.” That’s how you end up with priests reportedly whipping victims with leather straps and forcing naked young boys to pose like Jesus on the cross. “We have long discovered that secretive, hierarchical cabals of single men are usually trouble in any context.” Ending the celibacy requirement and allowing women and married men into the priesthood is a “no-brainer.” That’s a mistaken conclusion, said John Daniel Davidson in TheFederalist.com. This “is not a crisis of Catholic teaching or tradition.” It’s a crisis caused by a faction of liberal priests and bishops who embraced the sexual revolution, and “lost sight” of their sacred duties. Catholics need to cast out the wolves who “have stolen in among Christ’s flock.”
“Nothing can amount to the penitence that is deserved,” said Elizabeth Bruenig in The Washington Post. Catholic lay people should demand that church authorities cooperate fully with local law enforcement, having proven incompetent to address this crisis themselves. There should also be “mass defrockings.” But the nature of these crimes was so horrifying that the church cannot hope to recover the confidence of Catholics. “Evil is real, and it walked the earth in Pennsylvania. It entered through our church doors.”
The investigations in Pennsylvania aren’t over, said Daniel Burke in CNN.com. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro said that more than 400 people have called his office’s clergy abuse hotline since the grand jury report, which says there could be thousands more victims who haven’t come forward, or whose records were lost. Prominent Catholics have called for other states to “follow Pennsylvania’s lead.” Few priests are expected to face prosecution, said Dan Levin in The New York Times. “Only two of the cases in the report have so far led to criminal charges.” In many cases, the offenders named in the report are dead or the statute of limitations has expired. “It’s good that the public sees this,” said Frances Samber, whose brother was abused by a Pittsburgh priest and committed suicide in 2010. “But where is the justice?”
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from AP (2), Getty