There seemed little doubt that the 18-month grand jury investigation into sexual abuse claims against Catholic priests in Pennsylvania would produce some disturbing findings. But the nearly 1,400-page report released Tuesday was more appalling and far more damning than most could have imagined.
The report, which was released after ongoing legal challenges by the Catholic church to block it, detailed claims of abuse at the hands of more than 300 priests over seven decades. The investigation identified nearly 1,000 children who were victims, but noted that there were probably thousands more.
The grand jury probe covered six Pennsylvania dioceses — Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton — and painted a picture of conspiracy and coverup by the Catholic church that stretched from local parishes to the Vatican itself. Even more disturbing were references in the report to police and law-enforcement officials who turned a blind eye to claims of sexual abuse against children so as to not sully the reputation of accused priests and the Catholic church.
The case of the late Rev. Ernest Paone illustrates the utter failure of the church and law enforcement to protect children. Paone served at St. Titus Catholic Church in Aliquippa from 1957 to 1960 and at St. Monica Church in Wampum and St. Theresa Church in Koppel from October 1961 to May 1962. The pastor at St. Monica notified the Pittsburgh bishop that he had interceded to prevent Paone from being arrested for “molesting young boys of the parish and the illegal use of guns with even younger parishioners,” according to the grand just report. He added that Paone was involved in “conduct degrading to the priesthood” and “scandalous to the parishioners.”
What action did the church take? Paone was reassigned to a church in Sharpsburg. In fact, he was reassigned several more times to churches in Los Angeles and San Diego and, incredibly, even taught in California public schools.
The Beaver County district attorney in 1964, Robert Masters, not only did not investigate claims against Paone, he sent a letter to the Pittsburgh bishop saying that “in order to prevent unfavorable publicity,” he had “halted all investigations into similar incidents involving young boys.”
Masters, who told the grand jury last year that he had wanted the diocese’s support for his political career, was — thankfully — fired on Wednesday from his job as solicitor for Beaver County Children and Youth Services. Current District Attorney David Lozier said he was launching an investigation into Master’s conduct while district attorney.
The state grand jury reviewed more than 2 million documents, most from the “secret archives” that church leaders had kept for decades detailing reports of abuse that had been hidden from the public. The report described horrific claims of rape, molestation and sexual relationships with young boys and girls. In most cases, the offending priest was simply moved to another parish and criminal prosecution was never undertaken.
This pattern of moving predator priests to new locations and ignoring criminal investigations dominates the report as church leaders sought to hide the claims from the public. Notably, two local Catholic leaders — current Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington and former Pittsburgh bishop — are singled out for failing to report abuse allegations to law enforcement. The report notes that Wuerl often took contradictory actions, sometimes removing offending priests from the ministry, and other times moving them to different parishes.
Zubik called a press conference to repeatedly claim that there was no coverup attempt on the part of the church, at least not since the so-called zero-tolerance policy adopted after The Boston Globe’s revelations in 2002 of widespread abuse among priests. The grand jury report paints a much different picture.
Tragically, the report only confirms what has become known for more than a decade regarding predator priests. Catholic leaders have offered apologies and pleas for forgiveness in the aftermath of the report’s release. The Vatican on Thursday responded to the report, expressing “shame and sorrow” and calling the abuse “criminally and morally reprehensible.” Pope Francis was not quoted directly, but the statement said he wants to eradicate “this tragic horror” and to assure victims that “the pope is on their side.”
The bottom line, however, is that church leaders, from parish priests to bishops and cardinals, sacrificed the well being of children entrusted to their care for the sake of protecting the church’s reputation.
Which leaves a huge question for millions of Catholics going forward: What will the church do to reassure its members that changes have been made to prevent such horrendous crimes in the future? It seems clear that the Catholic church needs to take decisive action against many of its leaders who allowed these crimes to go unpunished. If not, the integrity of the Catholic church will forever remain clouded in suspicion.
Editorial by the Beaver County Times, Pa.