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Storm clouds pass over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jason Cohn/Reuters

How Catholic churches in Pennsylvania hid decades of abuse

A grand jury released a report last week into the widespread sexual abuse of children in Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses.

The nearly 900-page report includes dozens of testimonies provided by the victims detailing decades of abuse by the clergy and reveals a pattern of systematic cover-ups by senior church officials.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office launched the investigation in 2016, called it the largest, most comprehensive report into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church ever produced in the U.S., one that builds on The Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into the same matter.

In a news conference Aug. 14, Shapiro said the report shows that the abuse was “pervasive” throughout Pennsylvania and described how church officials used “sophisticated” cover-up methods to prioritize their institutions over the safety of boys and girls.

The grand jury said it believes that the number of abused children could be “in the thousands.”

Here’s a closer look at the report:

What are the numbers?

According to the grand jury’s report, subpoenaed church documents provided “credible” abuse allegations against 301 “predator priests.” The number of identifiable victims exceeds 1,000 over a period of 70 years.

Here’s how the number of flagged priests broke down by diocese:

  • Diocese of Erie: 41
  • Diocese of Allentown: 37
  • Diocese of Greensburg: 20
  • Diocese of Harrisburg: 45
  • Diocese of Pittsburgh: 99
  • Diocese of Scranton: 59

These six dioceses cover 54 out of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, according to the report.

What were the grand jury’s findings?

In its report, the grand jury said several senior church officials have “largely escaped public accountability.”

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. … Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal,” the jury said.

After two years investigating approximately half a million internal church documents, here are some of the findings:

  • Most of the victims have been boys, but — as described further down — some were girls too.
  • Euphemisms are common when describing sexual assault. “Never say ‘rape;’ say ‘inappropriate contact’ or ‘boundary issues,’” the report said.
  • Senior church officials didn’t always conduct proper investigations into the accusations. Instead, officials were instructed “to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.”
  • Priests were sent to church-run psychiatric treatment centers “for an appearance of integrity.” A determination into whether a priest was a pedophile largely hinged on the priest’s “self-reports,” “regardless of whether the priest had actually engaged in sexual contact with a child.”
  • When a priest had to be removed, officials didn’t publicly disclose a reason. Instead, they said the priest was on “sick leave” or had “nervous exhaustion.” A third option? Say nothing at all.
  • Priests who raped children were given continued housing and living expenses.
  • Known predators were allowed to continue their priesthood and transferred to new communities unaware of the priest’s prior conduct.
  • Child sex abuse was treated as an “in-house” personnel matter, and police were not notified. The jury noted that there were some cases in which law enforcement learned of the abuse.
  • Because of the cover-up, nearly all of the incidents of abuse the jury identified for the report are too old to be prosecuted.

What were the allegations?

The grand jury said the examples provided in the report are not meant to be “exhaustive,” but “provide a window into the conduct.”

“Then we went – he laid out a blanket and he started kissing, feeling, put his finger in me. That hurt. It was confusing because – you were always told you were going to Hell if you let anybody touch you. But then you’ve got Father doing it.”

One survivor, identified in the report as Julianne, testified that Father Francis Fromholzer sexually abused her and one other student while he was a religion teacher at a high school in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Julianne, 68, said one incident occurred in 1965 when she and another girl were about 13 or 14 years old. Fromholzer drove the girls to the Poconos, on a trip that Julianne’s family had approved since Fromholzer was a trusted priest. On that trip, the priest groped both girls. The priest’s sexual or inappropriate contact continued after the trip, Julianne said, sometimes in the gym of a basement in the school.

The report noted that the Diocese of Allentown was made aware of Fromholzer’s abuse in 2002, but internal documents showed efforts by church officials to discredit the victims, including Julianne’s account.

Fromholzer continued practicing as a priest until he “volunteered” to retire after the diocese documented the abuse in 2002.

“Father Graff did more than rape me. He killed my potential and in so doing killed the man I should have become.”

The above quote was part of a 2007 letter written by a man identified as Joey, who attempted to alert the Diocese of Allentown to Father Edward R. Graff’s sexual assault against him when he was 7 years old.

“During the violent assault, Graff had borne down on Joey’s back with such force it had damaged his back,” the report said. Joey, later on, became addicted to painkillers after the back injury. Joey wrote the letter before he died of overdose.

Graff served as a Catholic Church priest for 45 years; most of that time was spent in Allentown. During that time, he “raped scores of children,” the report said.

The church in Graff’s case used euphemisms to downplay his actions. Church documents referred to the priest as an alcoholic, and he was sent to treatment centers for his supposed alcoholism, but the grand jury concluded that internal documents about Graff’s actions “reflected more than a mere problem with alcohol.”

“This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.”

This was written by a bishop in a letter to Father Thomas D. Skotek, a rapist in the Diocese of Scranton, the report said.

While serving as a pastor in the 1980s, Skotek sexually assaulted a girl, who later became pregnant. Skotek then arranged an abortion for the girl, the report said, adding that Bishop James Timlin was “fully aware” of Skotek’s conduct by 1986.

Skotek wasn’t officially removed from the ministry until about two decades after the incident, the report said.

“It is still really hard to get it out there that you were in a room when you were 14 or 15 and getting naked pictures taken from priests.”

The grand jury also uncovered a ring of predatory priests from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, including one named Father George Zirwas, who in the mid-1970s collaborated to abuse children and produce child pornography on church grounds.

One victim, identified as George, recalled befriending Zirwas when he was an altar boy and being invited to a parish rectory where three other priests asked him to undress himself on the bed and then photographed him naked.

In his testimony to the grand jury, George said the photographs were later added to a collection of similar photos with other teenage boys. He also said that Zirwas had given him a gold cross necklace to wear, which the grand jury observed was given to victims to signal to other predators that the child had been abused.

Of the priests involved, two were later sentenced to time in prison. Like many other abusers, Zirwas was repeatedly reassigned to different parishes and placed on leave of absences as separate allegations of sexual abuse surfaced up until 1996. During his funeral in 2001, then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl, who knew about the priests’ misconduct, remarked “a priest is a priest. Once he is ordained, he is a priest forever.

How has the church responded?

In a letter released Monday by the Vatican, Pope Francis addressed the Pennsylvania grand jury report for the first time since it was made public last week.

“We showed no care for the little ones,” the pope wrote in a letter to Catholics. “We abandoned them.”

In a slew of press conferences shortly after the report went public, bishops of dioceses named in the scathing report were sympathetic to victims yet critical of the methods used by the 23-person grand jury and the attorney general.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has come under scrutiny for serving as bishop of Pittsburgh while many of these alleged abuses occurred. More recently, in 2015, Wuerl hosted Pope Francis during his first pastoral visit to the United States.

Wuerl released a statement after the report’s release saying, “While I understand this report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”

Bishop David Zubik, Wuerl’s successor in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, also defended Wuerl’s conduct, saying there was “no cover-up” but promising to meet with survivors to apologize on behalf of the church.

Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg apologized to the survivors and acknowledged the “inaction of those in church leadership who failed to respond appropriately.” Bishop Gainer has lobbied against expanding Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, which would give victims more time to bring criminal charges.

Diocese of Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico wrote in a news release that “this is not the moment to focus on our efforts. Today, I simply stand before you, humbled and sorrowful.”

Persico pledged that “allegations of abuse will always be turned over to the proper authorities for investigation” going forward.

The report echoes other abuse-related scandals troubling the church

The instances of abuse unearthed by the Pennsylvania report add to the ongoing scandals over child sex abuse that have roiled the Catholic Church worldwide.

Last year, in Australia, the conclusion of a five-year investigation sparked a national reckoning over abuse within the Catholic Church. In the months since, church leaders have faced criminal charges and Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Archbishop Philip Wilson, the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to be convicted of covering-up abuse.

In Chile, Pope Francis has accepted the resignations of five of 34 bishops who offered to resign en masse following a scathing report that found church officials hid claims of abuse.

Francis has met with those victims and has gone as far as to apologize for “grave errors” made in the Vatican’s handling of sexual abuse cases.

On Aug. 14, Reuters reported that the Chilean government has asked the Vatican for documents related to nine additional clergy members accused of abuse.

The church has had to reckon with accusations against some of its prominent leaders, including American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned in July. But Francis has also been outspoken in condemning the “culture of cover-up” in the church.

Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, says that as new revelations emerge, “focus is now less on priests … than on what happens when bishops are guilty of cover-ups.”

What’s next?

While charges have been filed against two priests since the start of the investigation, it’s unlikely that the report will yield new criminal charges. It has taken decades for some victims to speak up about the abuse they endured, and for many cases this means the clock has already run out for filing lawsuits against the church.

Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations currently prevents victims of child sex abuse from filing civil charges if they have already turned 30 years old, or filing criminal charges if they are over 50. Many of the victims identified in the report are in their 60s and 70s, and the oldest is 83.

The grand jury called for eliminating the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children, and recommended that a two-year “window” be created to let older victims retroactively sue the diocese for damages.

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