Sins of Omission: The Abusive PA Clergy Abuse Report

Back in August, after a special solemnity Mass in my parish in the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, I came home and read the grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses, including my own.

I read the 884-page online version. I saw allegations against priests in my diocese and the Pittsburgh diocese where I was baptized. I saw names of priests I know or have met. I was, of course, mortified. The behavior described wasn’t merely twisted, perverse, and psychologically warped, but diabolical.

I felt sick. I struggled for the best invectives to hurl at my screen but was left speechless. None seemed adequate. Making me angrier was the fact that so many abusers got away with their deeds. At least in this world.

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If there was a degree of reassurance, however, it was this: in many cases, a good priest or bishop stepped in to stop the abuser or remove him from ministry. This even included some cases with the much-maligned and understandably criticized then-Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh.

And yet, as I worked backward to the report’s introduction, I was assaulted by this summary statement, which instantly became the most quoted passage in the media: “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.”

That hit me like a brick. Whoa, I snapped at my computer screen, now that’s not true. They did nothing and hid it all?

This isn’t what I saw. The very report itself contradicted that explosive charge. In fact, I found the name of my previous priest (a longtime friend) in the report. He’s no abuser, quite the contrary. I was gratified to see Father Mark listed for reporting an accused abuser based on just one allegation. He is one of many men of God who did something. And yet, good men like Father Mark endure nasty looks when wearing their collar in public out of suspicion they’re child molesters.

Look at the line again: “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.”

Such hyperbole is outrageous and damaging. Worse, I feared it was intentional. I suspected from the language, including remarks by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the report’s front man, who condemned a “sophisticated” and “systematic cover up” aimed at protecting “the institution at all costs,” that the actual target is the institutional Catholic Church.

All of which brings me to a remarkable article published in Commonweal, written by Peter Steinfels, longtime editor of Commonweal and religion reporter for the New York Times. Steinfels and I no doubt have political disagreements and a few cultural and spiritual ones as well. Nonetheless, I stand in admiration of this superb piece of thoughtful, thorough reporting that ought to be read in every course on journalism and media (and legal) ethics.

Steinfels’s nearly 12,000-word piece is titled “Vehemently Misleading: The Pennsylvania Grand-Jury Report Is Not What It Seems.” If you have any opinion whatsoever on the Pennsylvania abuse report or the wider issue of clergy abuse, you have an obligation to sit and read this article. Steinfels has more than confirmed my worst suspicions about this report back in August. He has also confirmed in my mind that certain public officials in Pennsylvania need to be held accountable.

Steinfels begins by laying out the enormous influence of the Pennsylvania abuse report, which has prompted numerous additional states to follow suit. He then quickly zeroes in on what is indeed the most “vehemently misleading” passage, the one that has had the greatest reverberations:

“All” of these victims, the report declares, “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all.” Or as the introduction to the report sums it up, “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.”

Steinfels gets right to the heart of the matter, asking: “Is that true?” The answer, of course, is no, as is clear to anyone who reads beyond the irresponsible introduction. Steinfels answers his question:

On the basis of reading the report’s vast bulk, on the basis of reviewing one by one the handling of hundreds of cases, on the basis of trying to match diocesan replies with the grand jury’s charges, and on the basis of examining other court documents and speaking with people familiar with the grand jury’s work, including the attorney general’s office, my conclusion is that this second charge is in fact grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust. It is contradicted by material found in the report itself—if one actually reads it carefully. It is contradicted by testimony submitted to the grand jury but ignored—and, I believe, by evidence that the grand jury never pursued.

These conclusions are dramatically at odds with the public perception and reception of the report….

[T]here is the hard reality that not many people have actually read the report, let alone read it critically…. It includes, I can pretty safely add, the journalists on whose news accounts most of these people relied. Almost every media story of the grand jury report that I eventually read or viewed was based on its twelve-page introduction and a dozen or so sickening examples the introduction and the report highlight, written in a language that Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court later called “incendiary.”

That was my takeaway, too. Journalists did a shabby job with the report, clearly skimming the introduction as the basis for the nastiest headlines. Then again, in their defense, they surely figured they could safely rely on the report’s own summary introduction. A reasonable assumption.

I will not here summarize Steinfels’s exhaustive review, but a few of his conclusions are worth noting.

First, the report alleged that clergy abuses occurred regularly and routinely “everywhere.” Really? I can name a half dozen parishes off the top of my head with no reported cases. Does the report substantiate this charge? No.

In a particularly jaw-dropping statistic, contrary to the claim that the “men of God” hid everything, Steinfels estimates that “perhaps 90 percent or more of offenders the report lists were identified not by the police but by those ‘deficient’ diocesan investigations.”

Whoa! What’s that?

Yes, 90 percent. That’s in contrast to the, well, zero percent the report effectively claimed (contrary to information provided in the report itself) by asserting that “all” cases were covered up.

This is the height of irresponsibility. Shame on the authors.

Second, the online version of the report ends at page 884. It chops off the more than 450 pages that followed. These pages, as Steinfels notes, consist of photocopied responses from dioceses, bishops, diocesan officials, and certain priests protesting their innocence. They were guillotined.

Further, the grand jury report offered no comparative data or historical context. As I read it, I banged my fist pleading with the anonymous authors for a general percentage of priests involved in abuse. I’m sure the number is in the single digits. Unfortunately, no such analysis was offered. The report evokes a pandemic. I badly wanted to know how many of the guilty priests are dead or alive. One priest highlighted was born the year Ulysses S. Grant became president. There’s one allegation against him. We have no idea if it’s legitimate.

And what about the good clergy who manned up and did their due diligence? This includes the retired bishop of my Erie diocese, Donald Trautman, who is treated very unjustly by the grand jury report. Steinfels, in his analysis, shows that Trautman acted strongly, nobly, compassionately, prudently, and even rapidly—a view backed by an independent analysis done by the Pittsburgh firm K&L Gates. (The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would have served taxpayers far better had it hired K&L.)

Steinfels’s review makes clear that the bad apples did their ugly work primarily in that notorious period I refer to as the Dark Ages of the Church: the 1970s. Two bishops stand out as potentially ignoring serious cases during that time: the late Bishop Alfred Watson of Erie and Bishop William G. Connare of Greensburg.

Moreover, after reading the report in August, and then doing several talk shows on the subject, I had many people ask me how the Catholic Church and its clergy compares to Protestant denominations, public schools, juvenile detention centers, prisons, nursing homes, the Boy Scouts, coaches, physicians, psychiatrists, stepfathers, live-in boyfriends, USA Gymnastics, Jerry Sandusky, and on and on. A friend of mine is a state trooper who investigates sex-abuse crimes against minors. He told me that teachers and coaches are the most common offenders. He has had seven cases of clergy abusers. When I asked him how many of those seven were Catholic priests, he said, “Zero. All of them were Protestant pastors.” He noted that he has a colleague in the eastern part of the state who has arrested priests, but he personally has had no cases involving Catholic priests.

That’s an anecdotal example. Still, such comparative data with other professions is not only valuable but necessary. This report, however, clearly had no such interest. It wasn’t the goal. So what was the goal?

Steinfels concludes that “the real objective” of the Pennsylvania report is that it was intended as a “weapon” by those wielding it:

In Pennsylvania, the criminal statute of limitations for the sexual abuse of minors has been repeatedly extended; the first of the grand jury’s recommendations is to remove it altogether….

The radioactive recommendation is one that has been implemented in four states (California, Minnesota, Hawaii, and Delaware) and proposed in many more. The grand jury calls for a “civil window” of two years during which victims can sue dioceses for abuse not just if accusers are under thirty, as Pennsylvania law now provides, but no matter their age. Pennsylvania’s bishops have previously opposed similar legislation on the grounds that it would expose dioceses, parishes, and charities to huge losses, even bankruptcies, for misdeeds committed by others many decades ago. Who would be penalized for these crimes? Not the actual predators and negligent or culpable church officials, in most cases dead or without assets, but Catholics who had nothing to do with those deeds…. The Pennsylvania bishops’ conference, like its counterparts in many other states, has argued the unfairness of lifting the statute of limitations for such suits against the Church and other nonprofits while barring them, under the doctrine of “state sovereignty,” against public schools, juvenile-detention centers, or other state agencies, where far more abuse occurs.

All this is debatable…. But the critical point regarding the Pennsylvania report is that it has been designed to be a weapon in the debate….

Whether that objective is a good or bad thing is open to debate. But the tool that the attorney general’s office has constructed to achieve it is an inaccurate, unfair, and fundamentally misleading instrument.

That being the case, I have my own conclusions, which will not get anywhere near a scintilla of the publicity the grand jury report received. Here they are:

For starters, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office and governor’s office should disclose to the public the authors of this report, particularly the inflammatory introduction. Who wrote it? Who’s responsible?

If we can’t be informed of the authors, how about the overseers? Did Attorney General Josh Shapiro pause to review the report before it went to press? Did Governor Tom Wolf?

As for Shapiro, I wonder if calls have been privately made for his resignation over this. He needs to clarify and apologize for the rank hyperbole and gross misperceptions. To that end, Governor Wolf should do the same.

Wolf’s role deserves special consideration for this reason: Tom Wolf is a cultural radical. Pennsylvania is a pro-life state where even Democrat governors (e.g., the late Bob Casey Sr.) were staunch pro-lifers. Wolf is so extreme on abortion that Planned Parenthood boasts that he’s the first and only governor who served as an “escort” for Planned Parenthood. Wolf’s radicalism on issues from abortion to same-sex “marriage” to the most fringe elements of the “LGBTQ” agenda is striking. Those Wolf positions are starkly at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church, Pennsylvania’s bishops, and, yes, Pope Francis. I’m sure that Wolf harbors a strong dislike for these teachings. I bet that Wolf was pleased to see his attorney general deliver this take down of the Church in Pennsylvania as well as unleash the wider assault that has now begun by other states eagerly following suit.

Third, the Catholic Church, particularly in Pennsylvania—whether via the bishops’ conference or another organization—ought to fight back. The entire Church was broad-bushed by this report that grossly mischaracterized countless priests and bishops. Some bishops, like Donald Trautman, have taken a severe hit. Gannon University has removed Trautman’s name from its campus. Reputations are being maligned, tarnished, and ruined. Some of these men might have a legal case against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, particularly if material they supplied to the grand jury was deliberately omitted in order for the attorney general’s office to paint a dark picture that shades the full truth.

The Pennsylvania bishops ought to respond, not only as a moral-ethical duty to clear names, but also because they might have no other recourse out of financial necessity, especially if (as Steinfels suggests) this report opens the floodgate for a litigation bonanza that will bankrupt innocent parishes. Moreover, they ought to consider responding as a signal to other states to be more judicious (and not so reckless) as they prepare reports.

Obviously, this report has put the bishops on the defensive, and people in the pews are understandably fuming. So am I. They want heads on a platter. But the innocent need not suffer silent martyrdom. The guilty should be punished fully, but the innocent need not accept injustice.

Do we want to see predatory priests held accountable? Of course. I can’t say that enough. Surely a special circle in Dante’s inferno awaits the worst of them.

But government officials also must be held accountable. Certainly, Pennsylvania officials have done nothing approaching the horrors of the worst abusers exposed in the grand jury report. I commend any sincere effort to shine the spotlight and seek genuine justice. And yet, they have caused damage in their own way. They now need to take steps to rectify what they’ve done wrong with this report.

The grand jury report has its own sins; they are sins of omission. An abuse report of this kind should not itself be an occasion for abuse.

(Photo credit: PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Today Show / YouTube screenshot)

  • Paul Kengor

    Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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