As the first anniversary nears of a grand jury report that paints a lurid picture…
Pennsylvania Catholics work to rebuild trust in bishops, hierarchy as anniversary of grand jury report nears
Millions of dollars have been paid out to sex abuse victims. Dioceses have released lists of credibly accused priests, implemented new child-protection policies and conducted listening sessions across the state.
Meanwhile, a federal investigation is ongoing.
“My faith is not shaken, but my confidence in the American bishops, except for a notable few, is at an all-time low,” Lea Hyland, a practicing lay Catholic who lives outside of Philadelphia, told Our Sunday Visitor.
A lot has happened in Pennsylvania’s scandal-plagued Catholic Church since the state attorney general’s grand jury report last summer unveiled a decades-long pattern where 301 priests were alleged to have sexually assaulted more than 1,000 children, with their crimes covered up by the bishops.
A work in progress
“The intensity of the emotion that understandably came forth when the report was released has tapered off. But it’s a work in progress. There still is a great deal of healing that needs to come about,” said Bishop Lawrence T. Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Bishop Persico, who has personally met with clergy sex abuse survivors, told OSV that the impact of the sex abuse crisis has been broad, affecting victims as well as Catholics in the pews and priests of integrity.
“This crisis is not something that (we) can or should put behind us,” said Bishop Persico, who was the only bishop to testify in front of the grand jury. “It’s something that will affect and inform us from this day forward.”
Though some have raised questions about its methodology and intent, there is no denying the impact that the 884-page grand jury report, released by the Pennsylvania attorney general on Aug. 14, 2018, has had, not only on the Church in the Keystone State, but in the entire country.
More than a dozen states’ attorneys general have since launched their own probes into clergy sex abuse cases and set up telephone hotlines for victims. Coupled with last summer’s revelations that former cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually abused minors and seminarians for several decades, the Church in the United States has been in a defensive posture ever since.
“It certainly has affected the attitudes of even committed Catholics. They are hopping mad,” said Patrick Hayes, an archivist for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer — the Redemptorists — in Philadelphia.
The fallout from the grand jury report includes a federal criminal probe. Last October, federal prosecutors issued subpoenas to all eight Roman Catholic dioceses and the two Eastern Catholic archeparchies in Pennsylvania, seeking years of internal Church records. Authorities have not released many details of that investigation.
“Even if you haven’t actually laid eyes on the grand jury report, you’ve heard about it. It’s been in all of our papers, not just in Philadelphia but all throughout the state,” said Hayes, who shares some of the misgivings that veteran religion reporter Peter Steinfels expressed about the report in a January article in Commonweal magazine.
“I thought the report was a little incomplete. There was a lot more that could have been said but wasn’t,” said Hayes, who told OSV that any Catholic parish or organization in Pennsylvania “that has even one child within a mile of it” now requires lay volunteers and employees to undergo a thorough, multi-session sex abuse prevention training curriculum complete with background checks and fingerprinting. The dioceses require their priests to undergo similar training.
“You have to jump through an awful lot of hoops,” Hayes said. “The trainings are up and running and very comprehensive.”
An examination of the diocesan websites in Pennsylvania reveals a trove of information where the dioceses lay out the various steps they have taken in response to the grand jury report. Those steps include releasing the names of credibly accused priests, creating new executive-level curial positions responsible for abuse prevention programs, answering the faithful’s questions in public listening sessions, as well as the bishops reaffirming their dedication to zero-tolerance policies and meeting with victims.
“We also are continuing our work with investigators regarding older allegations that have been brought forth,” said Bishop Persico, who added that sex abuse survivors in the Diocese of Erie have until Aug. 15 to apply to its Independent Survivors Reparation Fund.
“Then it will be several weeks until those cases are resolved,” Bishop Persico said.
In a statement released through the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference last September, the state’s Catholic bishops committed themselves to creating a compensation program where a panel of independent experts review victim claims and determine financial damages. The dioceses have since posted information about the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program with accompanying videos and other materials on their own websites.
“Money can’t buy back a person’s wellness. … But compensation can acknowledge the evil done, and it can help survivors as a rectifying greater peace in their lives,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in a video message shared on an archdiocesan website.
According to an interim report posted online, at least 167 people to date in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have filed claims with the independent compensation program. The archdiocese said it has paid or authorized to pay $19.63 million to 93 claimants, for an average payment of just over $211,000 per claimant.
The archdiocese said the review committee considers the number of people who have filed claims as evidence that the compensation program “has been operating effectively and in accordance with its intended purpose.” But while some may see the program as a good-faith measure of reparation, others see it as a way for the dioceses to limit their financial liability to survivors.
“The optics to us are that they want to put the money forward to hush the victims,” said Mike McDonnell, a clergy sex abuse survivor who leads the Philadelphia chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
McDonnell told OSV that if bishops really want to “come clean,” they need to open their diocesan archives completely to outside investigators and be accountable for all that truly happened.
For McDonnell and other survivors, Church leaders in Pennsylvania should support legislation that would expand the state’s civil statute of limitation laws to allow victims to file claims in decades-old cases. A bill to amend the statute of limitations passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last September but subsequently died in the state Senate.
“We’re going to help make this an issue in the 2020 elections,” McDonnell said.
Meanwhile, Catholics such as Pamela Mayberry of Cranberry Township, which is about 22 miles north of Pittsburgh, are still attending Mass and being active in parish life, even if they are more skeptical about their bishops.
“It didn’t shake my religious faith, but it shook my trust in the bishops and the higher-ups,” Mayberry told OSV. “I was just very disappointed in their leadership. It doesn’t look like they were as concerned about their parishioners as they were about their employees.”
Rebuilding trust and bringing about healing, Bishop Persico said, will not happen overnight.
“It is going to take time,” he said. “This will remain a significant part of my work as bishop for the rest of my tenure.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.
|Summary of findings of the grand jury report|
— Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania Attorney General website