The devastating grand jury report on Catholic clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania has sent fresh tremors through Catholic communities across the country and prompted calls for a broader reckoning for a church that has failed to move past the abuse scandal that exploded into view in Boston in the early 2000s.
In the two weeks since the landmark report revealed decades of alleged abuse, survivors of clergy sex abuse have urged attorneys general in every state to launch similar investigations, to compel cooperation with the power of the subpoena.
Amid a furor that reached the Vatican, where Pope Francis has been accused of covering up alleged sexual abuse by the former archbishop of Washington, prosecutors in a number of states, including Missouri, Illinois, and New York, have said they are beginning or exploring new investigations.
More than 15 years after the shattering revelations in Boston, the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report represents another watershed that has deepened the sense of crisis and need for full accountability, religious experts say.
“The bishops, for the most part, had hoped that once they got their ships in order [with new policies to protect children] they could move forward and everyone would forget about the past,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for Religion News Services. “That ain’t happening.”
Reese urged bishops across the United States to hire credible outsiders, such as retired judges or former FBI agents, to produce public reports on allegations and how they have been handled. If it is left to prosecutors and attorneys general to uncover the sins of the past, he warned, then “this will be going on for another 20 years.”
The citizen-investigators in Pennsylvania seemed to understand the power of coming to grips with a dark history.
“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this,” the 900-page report starkly begins.
In its investigation, the grand jury found accounts of abuse of more than 1,000 children by some 300 priests, dating back decades, and a “systematic cover-up” by church leaders, according to the state’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro. The grand jury wrote that in “almost every instance” the alleged abuse it found happened too long ago to prosecute.
The report references church abuse in Boston, where, in large part, the Catholic community has had its reckoning. In 2002 and 2003, church abuse was exposed by a Globe Spotlight series and a grand jury investigation. Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who led the court inquiry, called the abuse scandal “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever’’ in Massachusetts.
In light of the Pennsylvania report, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said her office has reached out to the Archdiocese of Boston and to local district attorneys “to talk about ways to strengthen the policies and systems in place to protect against these crimes in our state.”
“Because of the courage of survivors, and their willingness to tell their stories and confront institutional power, we have some of the strongest laws in the country to help victims and guard against child abuse in Massachusetts.
“Unfortunately, recent reports have shown that internal systems across the country may still be failing to protect people, which is unacceptable. It’s critical that church leaders cooperate with law enforcement, and that church officials are trained and understand their reporting obligations.”
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston confirmed that Healey’s office has been in touch.
“We are continuing to communicate with the attorney general’s office, as we regularly do, with regard to our mutual interest in protecting children,” said Terrence Donilon, the archdiocese’s secretary for communications & public affairs.
Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations says child sexual abuse victims have until age 30 to file a civil lawsuit. The grand jury seemed comfortable with that cap in general, but called for an amendment to give older victims a two-year window in which to file a new lawsuit.
Massachusetts has already greatly extended time limits to file a civil suit: The law permits child victims to file suit up until age 53.
Across the country, reaction to the Pennsylvania report has been harsh and swift.
Missouri launched its own investigation a week after the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released on Aug. 14. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced that his office has struck a deal to cooperate with the Archdiocese of St. Louis on an inquiry into abuse allegations “for the purpose of public transparency and accountability.”
The archbishop of St. Louis, Robert J. Carlson, pledged to voluntarily open the diocese’s records to state investigators, writing to Hawley: “I now invite you to review our files for the purpose of making an independent determination of our handling of allegations of clergy sexual abuse.” Hawley’s office said in a statement that “by inviting this independent review, the archdiocese is demonstrating a willingness to be transparent and expose any potential wrongdoing.”
The agreement, however, didn’t sit well with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the national nonprofit support group for clergy sex abuse victims.
The group’s president, Tim Lennon, said attorneys general should not form “partnerships” with the church, but should conduct independent investigations using subpoenas to compel the production of documents and testimony.
“What made the Pennsylvania report so valuable was that it did not solely rely on information provided by church officials,” SNAP said in a statement. “As a result, we got much closer to a true understanding of the scope of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.”
In response, Hawley’s office said in a statement that “unlike Pennsylvania, the Missouri Attorney General lacks power to subpoena or prosecute in this area. Nevertheless, this office has found a way to conduct a probing and thorough investigation. We will hold the dioceses accountable to follow through on their promise to provide everything we could obtain if we had subpoena power.”
Lennon said the findings of in Pennsylvania are similar to those in other dioceses where media or law enforcement has done a deep investigation, and SNAP is encouraging its members around the country to press for attorneys general to launch Pennsylvania-style inquiries in each state, he said.
“Urge [the AGs], implore, beg — all of the above,” he said.
SNAP also wrote Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, on Aug. 15, saying “it is long past time for the US Department of Justice to initiate a full-scale, nationwide investigation” into church abuse.
The Pennsylvania report identified at least seven priests with connections to Illinois. That state’s attorney general, Lisa Madigan, said the church “has a moral obligation to provide its parishioners and the public a complete and accurate accounting of all sexually inappropriate behavior involving priests” in the state. Madigan said she intended to meet with each diocese to get information, and expects every bishop in Illinois to cooperate.
“If not, I will work with states’ attorneys and law enforcement throughout Illinois to investigate,” she said in a statement.
In New York, Attorney General Barbara Underwood has reached out to district attorneys across the state to collaborate on investigations into abuse allegations, said Albany County District Attorney David Soares, president of the District Attorneys Association of New York.
“The horrific findings in Pennsylvania show the need for a similar investigation in New York State,” Soares said in a statement. “We owe it to past victims and current victims to fully investigate sexual abuse crimes.”
Soares has encouraged prosecutors across the state to work with the state attorney general “to investigate all allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and to use district attorneys’ power to convene grand juries when necessary.”
Michael Higgins, professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, said that an airing of past alleged crimes and cover-ups in the church “is in the best interest of all involved.” No institution likes being investigated, but were the church to make itself vulnerable by opening up records, he said, it would “speak from a place of contrition.” That’s where credibility is found, he said.