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It’s been almost two weeks since a grand jury report, compiled from first-hand interviews and more than 500,000 pages of internal documents, revealed sickening findings about decades of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania’s Catholic Church.
On top of identifying more than 300 predatory priests and over 1,000 victims (actual numbers are thought to be much higher) from almost every diocese in the state dating back to the 1940s, the 1300-page document also accuses Church leaders of covering up the crimes to avoid a crisis. So far, only two priests have been charged as a result of the probe.
We know a story of this scale has many angles, so put your faith in us to explain what’s going on, what’s led to this point and what might be coming next.
In case you thought this tale of corrupt clergy was an isolated incident, think again (and maybe rent Spotlight while you’re at it). Because the horrifying truth is the Catholic Church has been plagued by sex abuse scandals — and accusations of whitewashing — for decades.
While some charges came to light in the mid-20th century, it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Louisiana Rev. Gilbert Gauthe admitted to molesting at least 35 minors, that the issue of clergy abuse garnered real notoriety.
The scandal only gained steam from there as molestation cases from Ireland to Australia began to emerge. A major turning point came in 1998 when Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, the former Archbishop of Vienna, was ordered by Pope John Paul II to surrender all church duties amid claims he abused Catholic high school students. Groër died in 2003 without ever apologizing or admitting his guilt.
By 2002, the systemic pattern of priest abuse had exploded into a full-blown crisis when a squad of Boston Globe investigative journalists (a.k.a. theSpotlight team) dug up scores of molestation cases from across Boston, including more than 130 victims of former priest John Geoghan. Beyond the crimes themselves, the Pulitzer Prize-winning report also exposed the extent to which Church officials knew about the abuse and covered it up by transferring priests to other parishes.
And the bad news didn’t stop there.
In 2004, a bombshell study commissioned for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, revealed that more than 11,000 allegations of molestation were made against upwards of 4,000 U.S. priests between 1950 and 2002. The victims were mostly young boys.
Since then, sex abuse cases from the Caribbean to Europe to Australia have rocked the system, leading to this month’s grand jury report on systemic abuse and cover-up in Pennsylvania’s Catholic Church.
One of the overriding questions anytime a clergy sex scandal hits the news is: how could they get away with it for so long?
The short answer is: they had help.
The Aug. 14 grand jury report revealed sickening details about the lengths Church officials would go to when confronted with sex abuse allegations, saying they had a common “playbook” for burying the truth.
Here are the “playbook” practices identified by FBI agents on page three of the report:
1. Use euphemisms like “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues” in diocese documents. Never say “rape.”
2. Empower fellow clergy members to conduct investigations rather than qualified professionals.
3. Send priests for “evaluation” at church-run psychiatric centres and have officials there “diagnose” whether the priest was a problem.
4. Never admit why a priest was removed from his parish; make up an excuse for congregants or say nothing at all.
5. Continue providing housing and living expenses for priests regardless of abuse history.
6. Transfer predatory priests to a new location instead of removing him from the priesthood (as in the Boston/Spotlight cases).
7. Don’t tell police.
Nauseous yet? We sure are.
THE VATICAN’S RESPONSE
Well at first, they didn’t say much.
But after a 48-hour public shaming, the Vatican finally broke its silence saying the acts detailed in the report are “criminal and morally reprehensible” adding the sex crimes “robbed survivors of their dignity and faith.”
Despite its outrage, the Holy See nevertheless spoke of progress saying most of the reported crimes predated policies adopted by the Church in 2002 to crackdown on abuse (standby for applause).
Still, the Vatican’s statement wasn’t the only one to come out of Rome in the last few weeks.
Last Monday, Pope Francis issued a personal mea culpa and pleaded for forgiveness from the faithful. In his 2000-word letter (published in seven different languages), Francis condemned the systemic cycle of abuse and cover-up while pledging to stop at nothing to prevent future crimes. Rome said it was the first time a Pope had written to the world’s billion-plus Catholics on the subject of sex abuse.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE PENNSYLVANIA VICTIMS?
In addition to uncovering years of repulsive conduct, the Pennsylvania grand jury also renewed calls for changing the state’s statute of limitations laws to give victims a longer window of opportunity to take legal action against their abusers.
As it stands, Pennsylvania law only allows child victims of molestation to file criminal charges until age 50 and pursue civil lawsuits until age 30, but a bill before the state House of Representatives could change all that by scrapping the time limit for criminal prosecutions and giving victims an additional 20 years to file lawsuits. A vote on that bill could be coming as early as this fall. (We’ll keep you posted.)
Beyond that, Republican State Rep. Mark Rozzi — a victim of clergy abuse himself — is moving to pass legislation that would give older victims, whose prosecution window has now lapsed, a two-year period to take legal action.