Catholic Church Child Sex Abuse Report: More Than 1,000 Victims Over 7 Decades

by | August 15, 2018

By Jeremy Roebuck, Angela Couloumbis and Liz Navratil

Top Roman Catholic leaders in Pennsylvania routinely covered up child sex abuse by hundreds of priests, involving more than 1,000 victims over seven decades, according to a long-awaited grand jury report released Tuesday.

The nearly 900-page report -- the product of what may be the most comprehensive examination to date of clergy sex abuse across a single state -- accused church officials in six of Pennsylvania's eight dioceses of routinely prioritizing their institution over the welfare of children.

More than 300 accused priests were singled out -- though some names remained redacted amid an ongoing court fight over the accuracy of the report's findings and the damage it could cause to the reputations of some identified within it. Dozens of church superiors were also named as complicit, including some who have risen to prominent national postings.

"All of [the victims] were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all," the report says. "Priests were raping little boys and girls and the men of God who were responsible not only did nothing: They hid it all."

The report arrives amid a new wave of accusations that have upended Catholic congregations across the United States and resulted in the resignation of one cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, formerly the archbishop of Washington.

Among those named by the Pennsylvania grand jury is McCarrick's successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a onetime Pittsburgh bishop and now one of Pope Francis' top advisers in the United States.

Wuerl, who took the helm of the western Pennsylvania diocese in 1988, was faulted by the grand jury for failing to do enough to protect children from predators during his two decades there -- a claim he denied in a statement, saying he "acted with diligence, with concern for the survivors, and to prevent future acts of abuse."

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said diocesan administrators across the state dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to police, pressured law enforcement to terminate or avoid investigations or conducted their own biased probes without referring allegations to proper authorities.

"The abuse was rampant and widespread," he said. "It touched every diocese and it is horrifying."

Shapiro spoke before an audience that included several of the priests' accusers, some of whom testified before the grand jury. At times, some of them held hands or cried, while others moved to comfort them.

The findings are all but certain to add fuel to long-simmering battles in the Harrisburg, including debates over the fairness of the state's grand jury system and stalled legislation that would allow childhood victims to sue their abusers and others decades after an assault occurred.

In many respects, the report's broad conclusions -- the result of a two-year probe led by Shapiro's office -- resemble those of the 2005 grand jury report that assailed the Philadelphia Archdiocese over its handling of dozens of accused priests.

The patterns described in its pages -- and supplemented with more than 400 pages of accompanying church records and files -- also mirror tactics revealed in dioceses worldwide since the church scandal erupted in Boston 16 years ago: Priests preyed on vulnerable children and their superiors either ignored or hid allegations while shuffling abusers from parish to parish.

Despite the wide-ranging criminal behavior described, grand jurors did not recommend any new charges be filed. Many of the alleged abusers identified in the report are either dead or long since removed from ministry -- their offenses now beyond the state's statute of limitations for sex crimes. The accusations against several have been public for years.

And yet in its scope and breadth, the report released Tuesday was remarkable. The investigation spanned sexual misconduct stretching back seven decades, incorporated accounts of more than 1,000 victims and drew upon "secret archives" of allegations maintained by the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, Scranton, Erie and Greensburg -- together home to more than 1.7 million Roman Catholics.

Pennsylvania's other dioceses -- Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown -- were not included because previous grand juries had already scrutinized their handling of clergy sex abuse claims.

Response from church leaders was swift.

Several of the dioceses planned statements or news conferences to respond to the report, and some had already taken preemptive steps. Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg and Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie sought to blunt the impact of the report in recent weeks by opening their own archives and releasing names of all priests who had had abuse allegations lodged against them. Others including, bishops in Greensburg and Allentown followed suit Tuesday.

Wuerl -- whose predecessor in Pittsburgh, Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua, later led the Philadelphia archbishop for 15 years -- referred to the clergy sex abuse scandal "a terrible tragedy" in a statement Tuesday.

"I sincerely hope that a just assessment of my actions, past and present, and my continuing commitment to the protection of children will dispel any notions otherwise made by this report," he said.

Pittsburgh's current bishop -- David Zubik -- told parishioners the report was "a sad and tragic description of events that occurred within the church" and noted almost all reports of abuse in his diocese occurred before 1990.

More than two dozen current and former priests implicated during the grand-jury investigation have flatly denied the report's allegations and had sued to block its release. They contend that the secret probe trampled on their due process rights and the public release of its findings threatens to unfairly ruin their reputations.

The state Supreme Court agreed to at least temporarily remove their identifying information from the document and scheduled Sept. 26 legal arguments in Philadelphia on whether those concealed portions of the report should ever be revealed.

Still, accusers --  some who spoke publicly about their abuse for the first time during their grand jury testimony -- have hailed even the redacted report's release as a vindication they thought might never come. One woman, the report says, tried to commit suicide days after her testimony.

"From her hospital bed she asked for one thing: That we finish our work and tell the world what really happened," Shapiro said.

The result included dozens of harrowing accounts -- perhaps none more so than one describing four priests from Pittsburgh alleged to have preyed upon a string of young boys in a pedophile and child pornography ring.

The grand jury report says the men used whips, violence and sadism while repeatedly raping their victims in the rectory. One underage boy, the report says, was forced to stand on a bed, strip naked and pose as Christ on the cross, while his abusers took photos.

In Scranton, 59 priests were accused including one -- the Rev. Thomas Skotek -- who allegedly raped an underage girl, impregnated her and helped her to get an abortion more than 40 years ago. When Bishop James Timlin, who oversaw the Scranton diocese from 1984 to 2003, learned about the attack allegation he wrote a condolence letter -- to the accused priest.

"This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are," he said, according to correspondence quoted in the grand jury report. "I too share in your grief."

Records regarding 20 priests in the Greensburg Diocese revealed the story of the Rev. Raymond Lukac, who the report says impregnated a 17-year-old, secretly married her by forging another pastor's signature on a marriage license and then divorced the girl after she gave birth.

Grand jurors also singled out the case of the Rev. "Gus" Giella among the 44 priests they highlighted from the Harrisburg Diocese. Giella allegedly sexually abused five sisters from the same family, including one whose victimization began when she was 18 months old and lasted until she was 12.

Though church leaders were made aware of Giella's inappropriate behavior as early as 1987, diocesan leaders allowed him to remain in ministry, the report says.

Police -- responding to an abuse report -- raided Giella's home in 1992 and found it filled with vials of urine, photos of underage girls in sexually compromising positions and plastic containers containing pubic hairs from his alleged victims identified by their initials.

But throughout, grand jurors were unsparing in their criticism for the men they blamed for protecting predators in their midst.

"Please help me. I sexually molested a boy," wrote the Rev. Michael Lawrence -- one of 37 Allentown priests named in the report -- after he allegedly rubbed the genitals of a 12-year-old boy during a tutoring session in the 1980s.

Instead, the grand jury alleges, diocesan leaders in Allentown dismissed the boy's angry father as "irrational and difficult" and allowed Lawrence to remain in ministry for nearly two decades, concluding that "the experiences [would] not necessarily be a horrendous trauma to the victim."

In Erie, where 41 priests fell under the grand jury's microscope, the panel accused Donald Trautman, who served as the diocese bishop from 1990 to 2012, of lying to the public and police after learning of allegations against one of his priests.

In a letter to Vatican officials quoted in the report, Trautman acknowledged knowing of at least three accusers who said that the Rev. William Presley had choked, slapped, punched, raped, sodomized and fellated them.

Yet, when he removed Presley from active ministry in 2002, Trautman publicly acknowledged only one report and waited four more years before informing police, purportedly saying then that the accusations had only recently come to light.

In some cases, the grand jurors found, it was outsiders who helped keep abuse allegations under wraps. Robert Masters, who served as district attorney of Beaver County from 1964 to 1967, told the grand jury that that he intervened to block an investigation into one Pittsburgh diocese priest in hopes he could "prevent unfavorable publicity" and earn support from diocesan leaders for his future political career.

"These children, surrounded by adults enabling their abuse, were taught this abuse was not only normal -- it was holy," Shapiro said.

In addition to their allegations Tuesday, grand jurors echoed prior calls from other prosecutors to abolish the state's statute of limitations on sex-abuse crimes against minors and suspend the civil statute of limitations as well, so victims can sue their abusers decades after the assaults occurred.

"We can't charge most of the culprits," their report says. "What we can do is tell our fellow citizens what happened and try to get something done about it."

(c)2018 Philly.com