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‘A failure of leadership’ allowed widespread church sex abuse, says Pennsylvania bishop

A Pennsylvania grand jury report this week revealed disturbing new details about widespread child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Of the six dioceses under investigation, only Erie's Bishop Lawrence Persico testified in person. He talks to Judy Woodruff about the church’s “failure of leadership,” removing the statute of limitations for victims and whether his faith should reconsider celibacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the subject of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the extensive, disturbing grand jury report made public in Pennsylvania this week.

    While past investigations have focused on the actions of individual priests, this probe also looked closely at how much church hierarchy, the bishops, knew about that behavior and to what lengths they went to cover it up.

    Among other findings, the report concluded, "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."

    Of the six Pennsylvania bishops whose dioceses are covered in the investigation, only one agreed to testify in person before the grand jury, Lawrence Persico of the diocese of Erie.

    And he joins me now via Skype.

    Bishop Persico, thank you very much for talking with us.

    These are such devastating findings. How seriously is the church taking them?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    They're taking them very seriously, because we realized, after the report came out, how bad things were.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meaning that you and others were not aware of the depth of the problem before this?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    We weren't aware throughout the whole state of how bad things were.

    Obviously, we — I knew some of the situation in the Diocese of Erie, since I have only been here six years, but when you see it all together, then you see how bad it is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as we just said a moment ago, this is a report that focuses, yes, on the actions of individual priests, but it also focuses on the actions of the leadership, the bishops, and paints a disturbing picture of the inaction of bishops, actively either ignoring or doing nothing about charges, claims that were brought to them.

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    That's true.

    There was a failure of leadership. That definitely is pointed out in that report, that many bishops didn't handle it well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And why do you think that was?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    Well, that's a good question.

    I don't understand myself what they were doing. But I think because they were trying to protect the institution, and they were more concerned about that than about dealing with this with law enforcement, as we would do today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how do you explain that?

    When you think about the vow that a priest takes, leaders of the church take, what they are devoting their lives to, to put an institution ahead of human beings, how do you explain that?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    There is no explanation for it. It's regrettable. But, unfortunately, that's what happened in the past.

    And we, as the leaders today, must demonstrate that we cannot have that anymore. Moving forward, there has to be a resolution to handle this correctly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you were singled out for praise by the Pennsylvania state attorney, Josh Shapiro, because you were, as we said, one of the only six bishops whose diocese were being investigated here to show up in person to testify before the grand jury.

    At the same time, you have been accused by a former priest in Erie, a man named James Faluszczak, of ignoring his story when he came to you, he said, had several conversations with you about his own abuse by another priest when he was a teenager.

    How have you responded to that?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    Well, this is the first time I have heard that.

    I don't remember the multiple conversations. He did speak to me once about it. And there were other issues going on with Jim, and I was trying to address those issues. He had informed me that he had reported the abuse that he received from Monsignor Martin prior to my arrival.

    So I thought that it was dealt with. And I was more concerned about the fragile state that he was in at the time when we were talking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Have you or do you plan to take steps to talk to him further?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    Well, quite frankly, when he left the diocese, I had reached out to him a number of times, written him letters, called him, but there were no returned calls.

    Certainly, if he wants to reach out or speak to me, I will be more than happy to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You, Bishop Persico, have focused in your statements — I was just reading them again this afternoon on behalf of the diocese — on wanting transparency, as you just said, focusing on help for the victims.

    But my question is, is there enough focus on the people who are accused of making these — doing these terrible things to these children? Do you think there is enough focus on going after the perpetrators?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    Well, we do what we're able to do canonically.

    Civilly, we can — if the crime is still active, they can — if they can be arrested by the authorities, that's fine. But I do take action by canon law to remove them from ministry. They're not allowed to function, present themselves as priests.

    I'm not quite sure what more we could do, outside of what the law enforcement, if they can do something there. That's about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what about, I mean, referring them for prosecution? And what about supporting what the state attorney general says he thinks should happen? And that's abolishing the statute of limitations, so that no matter when abuse occurred, the perpetrator can be prosecuted?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    Well, I think, again, that would have to be — I know what the challenges — or the four proposals that the attorney general made.

    However, those proposals, we have to review them. We're in the process of reviewing them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you personally think there should be any limits on the time — on prosecuting individuals who are accused?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    I don't have a problem with criminal prosecution, no. I think that's fine. In fact, I wish we could.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just a final question, Bishop Persico.

    Do you believe that the Catholic Church needs to rethink its fundamental tenets when it comes to young men who go into the priesthood, the celibacy that is a part of that responsibility?

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    Well, that certainly — in a situation like this, that would raise the question.

    But just by way of an example, here in the Diocese of Erie, we published a list of credibly accused clergy and laity. In the laity section, we have men and women who are teachers or working in some of our institutions.

    Now, some of them are married. So I don't know if you could say it's just because of celibacy that these men acted out, or even these women and laymen acted out.

    So I don't think we can just focus on celibacy. I think it's what kind of review we do when we bring candidates in study in the seminary.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's an important subject, and I know we're going to continue to look at it.

    Bishop Lawrence Persico, thank you very much.

  • Bishop Lawrence Persico:

    You're welcome.

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