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Pennsylvania grand jury says church was interested in hiding abuse

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IMAGE: CNS photo/Tim Shaffer, Reuters

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Pennsylvania grand jury report issued Aug. 14 paints a picture of a Catholic Church in six of the state’s dioceses that for decades handled claims of sex abuse of minors under its care by hiding the allegations and its victims.

More than 300 priests were linked to abuse claims and over 1,000 victims were identified, said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro in a news conference following the report’s release.

“The main thing was not to help children but to avoid ‘scandal,'” says a biting sentence about the behavior of church leaders and officials in the report, detailing a months-long investigation of clergy sex abuse claims in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, Scranton, Greensburg and Erie.

The report covers a period of 70 years, looking at the past and including information from the early 2000s, a time when news of the clerical sex abuse scandal erupted in the U.S. Before its release, some urged that the report be read keeping in mind that a lot has changed in the church since then, and also that not all of the report’s claims are substantiated.

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, for example, a few priests named in the report are still working there, Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik told local reporters in an Aug. 10 news conference, because, he said, church officials could not substantiate claims of abuse made against them.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper reported that Bishop Zubik said: “There is no priest or deacon in an assignment today against whom there was a substantiated allegation of child sexual abuse.” He said he would explain the process of parishioners following the report’s release.

But there are many painful claims.

In the news conference, Shapiro described allegations of a priest who physically molested a group of children by telling them he was doing a “cancer check,” one who he said “impregnated” a girl, and others who had boys strike a religious pose naked to take pictures of them. He spoke of a “systematic cover-up” by church officials who took information to the Vatican, who also did nothing to help victims, Shapiro said. He also spoke of priests who “weaponized faith” and had the victims go to confession for the sins, even as they were being victimized.

“I read the grand jury report on child sexual abuse with great sadness, for once again we read that innocent children were the victims of horrific acts committed against them,” said Harrisburg Bishop Ronald. W. Gainer shortly after the document’s release. “I am saddened because I know that behind every story is a child precious in God’s sight; a child who has been wounded by the sins of those who should have known better.”

The grand jury said it found in its investigation that those who claimed sexual abuse of their children by Catholic clergy or other church workers were “brushed aside,” and officials became more concerned with protecting the abusers because they wanted to protect the image of the church, the report says.

Some of those named in the report had their names redacted, or blacked out, after challenging the inclusion of their identities in it without having the legal opportunity to defend themselves. They are scheduled to have a hearing with the court in September.

Some of the dioceses involved said they would release the names of those facing “credible allegations” in the report when the document was made public and some of them did so, following the news conference.  

Some, such as the Diocese of Harrisburg, made its list public Aug. 1, updating it on Aug. 6, adding the name of an accused priest to it after receiving “additional information.” Its list included 72 names.

“We again emphasize that this is a list of accusations; we did not make assessments of credibility or guilt in creating this list,” a statement from the diocese said.

Not all who are accused of sexual abuse or of covering it up in the report are priests. Some on the lists released by dioceses are deacons, some are seminarians, teachers or other church workers, and some are no longer alive. Some are accused of being in possession of child pornography, others of inappropriate touching, kissing, soliciting a child for sex, but most are listed as “sexually abusing a child.”

The development comes as the Catholic Church in the United States finds itself grappling with the late July resignation from the College of Cardinals of a beloved and respected retired prelate, now-Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, 88, a former cardinal and former archbishop of Washington, following decades-old allegations that he sexually abused seminarians and at least two minors. He has been removed from public ministry, as of June 20, and is awaiting a Vatican trial.

MORE TO COME

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