ishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years, persuading victims not to report the abuse and law enforcement not to investigate it, according to a searing report issued by a grand juryon Tuesday.
The report, which covered six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses and found more than 1,000 identifiable victims, is the broadest examination yet by a government agency in the United States of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The report said there are likely thousands more victims whose records were lost or who were too afraid to come forward.
It catalogs horrific instances of abuse: a priest who raped a young girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils out; a victim tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest; and another priest who was allowed to stay in ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion.
The sexual abuse scandal has shaken the Catholic Church for more than 15 years, ever since explosive allegations emerged out of Boston in 2002. But even after paying billions of dollars in settlements and adding new prevention programs, the church has been dogged by a scandal that is now reaching its highest ranks. The Pennsylvania report comes soon after the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, who is accused of sexually abusing young priests and seminarians, as well as minors.
“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “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. For decades.”
The grand jury said that while some accused priests were removed from ministry, the church officials who protected them remained in office or even got promotions. One bishop named in the report as vouching for an abusive priest was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now the archbishop of Washington. “Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal,” the jury wrote.
The report is unlikely to lead to new criminal charges or civil lawsuits under the current law because the statute of limitations has expired. Only two of the cases in the report so far have led to criminal charges.
In statements released on Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops called for prayers for victims and for the church, promised greater openness and said that measures instituted in recent years were already making the church safer.
But several bishops, including Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh, rejected the idea the church had concealed abuse.
“There was no cover-up going on,” Bishop Zubik said in a news conference on Tuesday. “I think that it’s important to be able to state that. We have over the course of the last 30 years, for sure, been transparent about everything that has in fact been transpiring.”
Church officials followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” the grand jury said, minimizing the abuse by using words like “inappropriate contact” instead of “rape”; assigning priests untrained in sexual abuse cases to investigate their colleagues; and not informing the community of the real reasons behind removing an accused priest.
“Tell his parishioners that he is on ‘sick leave,’ or suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion.’ Or say nothing at all,” the report said.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office initiated the investigation, said in a news conference, “They protected their institution at all costs. As the grand jury found, the church showed a complete disdain for victims.”
He said that the cover-up by senior church officials “stretched in some cases all the way up to the Vatican.”
No other state has seen more grand jury investigations of abuses in the church than Pennsylvania, where about one of every four residents is Catholic and the local attorneys general have been particularly responsive to victims. Previous grand juries examined the dioceses of Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown; the new report covers the rest of the state.
Mr. Shapiro was surrounded on Tuesday by about 20 abuse victims and their family members, who gasped and wept when he revealed that one priest had abused five sisters in the same family, including one girl beginning when she was 18 months old.
Some victims said in interviews that they were relieved to finally be heard and to have their perpetrators publicly named.
“I had gone to two bishops with allegations over five years, and they ignored and downplayed my allegations,” said the Rev. James Faluszczak, an Erie priest on extended leave who was abused as a child and who testified before the grand jury. “It’s that very management of secrets that has given cover to predators.”
For others, it was too little, too late. Frances Samber, whose brother Michael was abused by a priest in Pittsburgh and committed suicide in 2010, said, “It’s good that the public sees this, but where is the justice? What do you do about it? Why aren’t these people in prison?”