A landmark grand jury report says hundreds of priests preyed on boys and girls in six Pennsylvania dioceses, where at least 1,000 were sexually assaulted over decades as top church officials, including Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, and the Vatican systematically worked to cover it up.
At almost 900 pages, the exhaustive report details methods by leaders of the dioceses to insulate accused members of the church from outside prosecution and judgment — employing the same strategies uncovered by The Boston Globe’s 2002 report on the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
The investigating team received files on at least 100 other priests but didn’t include them in the report for lack of sufficient evidence. The actual number of child victims is believed to be in the thousands, the jurors wrote, but there is no information because they either didn’t come forward or the dioceses didn’t create written records for all times they heard of the abuse.
The six dioceses — Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton — serve nearly 1.6 million Catholics in Pennsylvania.
In 1993, Cardinal Wuerl, then bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, coined the term “circle of secrecy” to describe the methods in place to protect accused members of the church, according to the report.
The cardinal denies he came up with that term, according to the spokesman for the Washington Archdiocese.
This included downplaying accusations of rape and molestation with euphemisms like “horseplay” and “wrestling,” transferring accused priests around the country or placing them on “health leave” while keeping them on the church payroll — at times to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. In some instances, accused sexual abusers were promoted.
Other methods included covering costs of victims related to medical and psychological care and settlements to victims with the signing of a confidentiality agreement.
Cardinal Wuerl on Tuesday defended his role in the church at the time.
“While I understand this report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse,” the archbishop said in a statement before the grand jury was released. “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.”
The report’s effect on the Pennsylvania dioceses, as well as the Vatican, could be seismic and costly. The Archdiocese of Boston in 2002 paid $10 million to victims of a priest who had abused more than 130 children during his tenure and in 2003 paid $85 million to victims and their parents who had filed lawsuits over the abuse. The scandal also resulted in the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro detailed graphic stories of victims of sexual abuse that occurred over decades, some stretching back as far as the early 1950s and continuing into the late 2000s.
The report took two years to compile based on victim testimony and a half-million internal documents subpoenaed from the church.
“These documents, from the diocese’s own ‘secret archives,’ formed the backbone of this investigation,” said Mr. Shapiro, adding that internal communications from the church corroborated victim testimonies and illustrated the extent of the cover-up, which reached the Vatican.
Church officials referred to the written reports of abuse as “secret archives,” said Mr. Shapiro, indicating their complacency in the cover-up.
“In each diocese, the bishops had the key to the ‘secret archives,’ which contained both allegations and admissions of the abuse and cover-up,” he said.
More than a dozen victims and family members of victims joined the attorney general Tuesday for a press conference in Harrisburg, crying and leaning on one another for comfort as details of sexual assaults by priests on children were made public.
This included a disturbing report of four “predator priests” in the Pittsburgh diocese who “groomed and violently assaulted young boys,” Mr. Shapiro said. One boy was forced to stand naked on a bed in the rectory, posing as Christ on the cross while these priests took photos of him. The pictures were added to a collection of child pornography and shared on church grounds.
These same predators gifted their favored victims with gold crosses to wear as necklaces, marking which boys had been groomed for abuse, the report said.
“Predators in every diocese weaponized the Catholic faith and used it as a tool of their abuse,” Mr. Shapiro said.
The grand jury recommended that criminal and civil statutes of limitations on sexual abuse in Pennsylvania be reformed to prosecute the detailed allegations of sexual abuse stemming from decades past. They wrote that the systematic cover-up allowed for the statute of limitations to expire before victims and law enforcement could hold perpetrators accountable.
However, at least two instances uncovered by the jury’s investigation led to charges against priests.
Last month, Catholic priest John Sweeney of Greensburg pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy in the early 1990s. Sweeney served as a priest for 16 years and in various parishes, according to the attorney general’s office.
In Erie, the Rev. David Poulson awaits trial on charges of sexually abusing two boys over many years. State prosecutors also say Poulson’s superior, Bishop Donald Trautman, knew about and covered up the abuse.
Cardinal Wuerl, as Pittsburgh’s bishop, had served the longest term as head of the diocese and personally dealt with at least 25 of the 99 accused priests.
He assumed leadership in Pittsburgh in 1988 and a year later drafted a letter to the Vatican raising concerns about a number of high-profile sexual abuse allegations against priests and what role the church should play in assuming responsibility and dealing with the accused.
He called for transparency among Catholic leaders, for them to tell one another that if a transferred priest had been accused of sexual assault, that they had a responsibility to their parishioners, who “would be gravely unsettled and scandalized” that a “priest pedophile has been assigned in their midst,” the report cited the cardinal as writing.
Despite this early attempt at a culture shift, Cardinal Wuerl presided over the reassignment of accused pedophiles to other churches and schools, positions where they were expected to interact with children. At times, he did discourage reassignments and encouraged resignations, but he approved the church’s stipends for the men and in some cases health insurance.
He was promoted to cardinal in 2006 and took over leadership of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Over the past two weeks, the cardinal has been dealing with the fallout of his predecessor, Theodore E. McCarrick, who was stripped of his title by the pope at the end of July after allegations of sexual abuse stemming from decades earlier.
“I think everyone recognizes that words, good intentions, and new policies, while important, are not enough,” Cardinal Wuerl wrote in a post on the website of the Archdiocese of Washington. “We must not only denounce abuse and take steps to stop the abusers. We must remove even the appearance of cover-ups as we investigate and address allegations.”