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‘Secret archives’ detailed priests’ child sex abuse and cover-ups, Pa. attorney general says

A scathing new grand jury report in Pennsylvania describes decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. At least 1,000 children were molested by more than 300 clergy, the panel found, which also claims a conspiracy of silence extended all the way to the Vatican. Judy Woodruff sits down with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Fr. Thomas Reese of Religion News Service.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are new findings of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, this time in Pennsylvania. A two-year-long grand jury investigation made public today found some 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 identifiable victims over a period of 70 years, and it alleges that bishops and other church leaders covered up the crimes, often moving priests to other churches once the allegations came to light. In some cases, the perpetrators were even promoted.

    First, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro joins us from Harrisburg.

    Mr. Attorney General, thank you for joining us.

    Disturbing doesn't even begin to do justice to this report. How would you sum it up?

  • Josh Shapiro:

    Three hundred and one predator priests, a systematic cover-up by church leadership, more than 1,000 child victims over decades. There's no other way to sum it up other than saying that. This is the most comprehensive report done into clergy sex abuse in the history of this country.

    And the 23 grand jurors in Pennsylvania put forth a specific plan on how we could help move our commonwealth forward with legal changes necessary, but most importantly, today was a day for sunshine. Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant, and sunshine is what we got here today in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we don't begin to have time to go into the details of every one of these, but I did read a good portion of this.

    Can you give us just some examples of the kind of abuse that's taken place and when it took place?

  • Josh Shapiro:

    Well, understand, this took place over decades. Again, documented proof involving 301 predator priests. One priest raped and assaulted and abused five sisters in the same family. One priest so violently raped a young boy that he had to get treatment for his back injuries as a result of that abuse, treatment that involved opioid painkillers that ultimately he got hooked on and died from.

    We saw Catholic priests weaponizing their faith, using their faith as a tool of the abuse, and all the while the bishops, the monsignors, the cardinals covered it up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you say they covered it up, I heard the archbishop of Pittsburgh today describing what happened during that period, pointing out that yes, what happened was terrible, horrific, but he said the worst of it happened more than two decades ago, and he said it was not so much a cover-up as following procedures at the time.

  • Josh Shapiro:

    Bishop Zubik is flat out wrong. Bishop Zubik, by the way, was Father Zubik for quite some time. He was promoted because of his role that he played in this cover-up.

    Understand, Judy, this isn't a matter of interpretation back and forth. We not only relied on people testifying before our grand jury over a two-year investigation, we relied on the church's own records, the church's own documents in what they called a secret archive. They had a trove of documents that not only detailed the abuse, but detailed the cover-up, as well, the work done by these bishops to pass these predator priests from place to place to get them out of one particular church where they were abusing and put them into another. It's all documented in those secret archives.

    And as for the bishop's claim that this was a long time ago, Judy, child rape in the 1970s is no different than child rape in 2018. It is never something that should be tolerated. It is never something that should be acceptable, especially inside a place of worship.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you say the cover-up reached all the way to the Vatican, explain what you mean.

  • Josh Shapiro:

    There were documents in the church's own secret archives where bishops notified the Vatican of the predator priests, notified them of their plans to pass them from place to place. And we have no proof that the Vatican did anything about it other than keep it quiet, as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you explain that this went on as long as it did?

  • Josh Shapiro:

    Well, Judy, look, it is inexplicable. It's my job as the attorney general of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the chief prosecutor, to put forth the facts, to make sure the people of Pennsylvania know what occurred. To do what the grand jury asked me to do, which is to provide the information and then also provide recommended reforms so that something like this can never happen again.

    We did that today. It's not my job to figure out how the church is going to heal or what they're going to do from here. It's my job to present the facts. And we presented those facts today.

    We presented facts that were buttressed by the church's very own documentation from their secret archives. Imagine that, Judy. They not only had these predator priests amongst them, they not only knew about the predator priests and what they were doing, but they documented it, and they locked it in a vault called a secret archive that the bishop had the key to.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Attorney General Josh Shapiro telling us just a portion of this truly horrible set of stories, a story that has emerged today. Thank you very much.

  • Josh Shapiro:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we turn to Father Thomas Reese. He's a Jesuit priest, and he's a senior analyst for "Religion News Service."

    Father Reese, as we said, horrible, horrific, you know, these terms don't do justice. What does this mean for the Catholic Church?

  • Father Thomas Reese:

    You're absolutely right. This report is filled with disgusting, appalling stories of abuse of children that should never have happened. You know, one child being abused is terrible, but 1,000, this is appalling.

    And this — the bishops that were involved at the time and were covering it up and moving priests from place to place, they should never have been made bishops. They never should have had that job, and they should have taken responsibility for what they did and resign. I mean, thankfully, the church now has in place rules that say there is zero tolerance for abuse.

    The grand jury only found two priests who were involved in abuse in the last ten years. That's two too many, but it's not the kind of numbers that we saw from decades ago. There has to be zero tolerance for abuse. There has to be zero tolerance for cover-ups.

    And I think the pope recently demanded the resignations of all the bishops in Chile because they were involved in cover-ups. And I think now the church is beginning to take this very seriously, but we have to keep them on target doing this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one of the people the attorney general and others fingered, pointed to in this report is the current cardinal, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl, because he was in charge of this diocese of Pittsburgh, one of the diocese involved, the one that involved the largest number of priests, the largest number of incidents.

    What does it say that he is in a position of influence and power today?

  • Father Thomas Reese:

    Well, I haven't read the chapter on Pittsburgh. I think the people of Pittsburgh and the people of Washington have to read it and make their own judgment on it.

    I know, however, that when Bishop Wuerl was the bishop of Pittsburgh, he removed a priest who was accused of abuse and involved in abuse, and then he was overruled by the Vatican. The Vatican told him to put this priest back into ministry.

    And Wuerl would not accept that. Wuerl objected. He went to the Vatican and fought them on that, and got them to change their mind.

    So, I don't know of all the instances that Bishop Wuerl was involved in, but I know of that case, where he fought tooth and nail to get that priest out of ministry, taking on the Vatican, taking on cardinals in the Vatican, to do so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, are structures now in place to prevent, to make sure that if this sort of thing is going on today, that the individuals involved are found, that they're punished, and that as much is being done as possible to prevent it?

  • Father Thomas Reese:

    First of all, any — anybody, a layman, a priest, anybody involved with children in the Catholic Church has to go through a police background check. Secondly, any accusation of abuse has to be reported to the police. And then thirdly, any priest who has credible accusations of abuse against him has to be removed from the ministry, and a full investigation takes place, and if that — if that information is found to be substantiated, then he can never, never be involved in ministry again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Father Thomas Reese, thank you very much. Such a disturbing story. Thank you.

  • Father Thomas Reese:

    Very disturbing.

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