WASHINGTON — A hierarchy of Roman Catholic Church leaders covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over three generations in Pennsylvania, persuading victims not to report the crimes and police officers not to investigate them, according to a sweeping grand jury report released Tuesday.
The investigation, the broadest inquiry into church sex abuse in US history, identified 1,000 children who were victims but added that there probably are thousands more.
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‘‘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 wrote in its report.
The 18-month investigation covered six of the state’s dioceses — Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton — and follows other state grand jury reports that revealed abuse and coverups in two other dioceses. The grand jury reviewed more than 2 million documents, most from the ‘‘secret archives’’ — how church leaders referred to the reports of abuse they hid from the public, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference Tuesday.
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The 1,400-page report, delivered in scathing language, described some of the abuse in disturbing detail:
■ In Erie, a 7-year-old boy was sexually abused by a priest who then told him he should go to confession and confess his ‘‘sins’’ to that same priest.
■ Another boy was repeatedly raped from ages 13 to 15 by a priest who bore down so hard on the boy’s back that it caused severe spine injuries. He became addicted to painkillers and later died of an overdose.
■ One victim in Pittsburgh was forced to pose naked as Christ on the cross while priests photographed him with a Polaroid camera. Priests gave the boy and others gold cross necklaces to mark them as being ‘‘groomed’’ for abuse.
■ A priest raped a young girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils out.
■ Another priest was allowed to stay in ministry after impregnating a 17-year-old girl, forging a signature on a marriage certificate and then divorcing the girl.
The report makes it clear that few criminal cases may result. ‘‘As a consequence of the coverup, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted,’’ the report said.
Shapiro said at a news conference that he was bound by the state’s statutes of limitation. In Pennsylvania, victims of child sex abuse have until they are 30 to file civil suits and until they are 50 to file criminal charges. The oldest victim who spoke to the grand jury was 83.
The investigation has helped renew a crisis that many in the church thought and hoped had ended nearly 20 years ago after a church scandal erupted in Boston. But recent abuse-related scandals, including in Australia and Chile, have reopened questions about accountability and whether church officials at the highest levels are still covering up crimes.
At least a half-dozen priests listed in Tuesday’s report have some connection to New England, according to a Globe review of the document.
One priest, Dennis Dellamalva, was sent to a Central Massachusetts treatment facility on a leave of absence during the time church authorities received complaints of sexual abuse against him in the early 1980s, the report said.
In 2011, a man told New Hampshire’s Diocese of Manchester that Charles Ginder, a priest, sexually abused him in 1980 during a car ride from an overnight retreat in New Boston, N.H., according to the report.
J. Pascal Sabas, a priest who was accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy in Pennsylvania starting in 1964, worked at two parishes in Maine during the early 1960s, the report said.
Donald Cramer, who was removed from the priesthood in 2014, allegedly communicated online with an individual in Connecticut who was criminally charged for possessing child pornography, according to the report. Cramer, authorities said, mentioned in his online communications that he wanted to “rent” boys in Mexico, according to the report.
A Pennsylvania bishop “had received inquiries” from the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., about Donald Dorsey, a priest who was sent to a hospice after he became “sexually involved with a high school girl,” according to the report. A Pennsylvania diocese had received two complaints about Dorsey’s behavior in 1959, the report said.
Another priest, Richard Zula, was sent to a Hartford mental health center in 1987. Zula was among a group of priests to use “whips, violence, and sadism in raping their victims,” according to the report.
The report also singled out the coverage of the Globe in the sex abuse scandal.
“Sixteen years ago, the media — not law enforcement — exposed a significant coverup of clergy sex abuse. While that exposure represents a fraction of what we’ve found in Pennsylvania, the effect of the investigative reporting of the Boston Globe on this issue can’t be overstated,” the grand jury’s report said. “The newspaper’s articles created a national scandal that altered the atmosphere.’’
The Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the scandal, and “Spotlight,” a Hollywood film about the newspaper’s investigation, won an Oscar for best picture in 2016.
About 15 victims flanked Shapiro at the news conference Tuesday.
James VanSickle, 55, recalled being sexually abused in 1981 by a priest in Erie, but the priest was not prosecuted for the abuse because the statute of limitations had passed.
‘‘This is the murder of a soul,’’ said VanSickle, who testified before the grand jury. ‘‘We don’t have a statute of limitations on the crime of murder. We don’t go after victims . . . and question their ‘repressed memories’ or ‘recovered memories.’ ”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, figures prominently in the report, because he led the Pittsburgh diocese as its bishop from 1988 to 2006. The grand jury depicts his actions as a mix of well-intentioned and obfuscatory.
Wuerl defended his conduct in a statement, saying: ‘‘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.’’
Pennsylvania is believed to have conducted more investigations of institutional child sex abuse than any other state. But there is no full accounting of abuse in the Catholic Church in the United States.
Peter Isely, a longtime advocate for victims of sexual abuse, said groups have long been pressing the US government for a national investigation of child sex abuse, especially in the Catholic Church. Isely, who was abused and is a spokesman for the global group Ending Clergy Abuse, said that a five-year inquiry in Australia is ‘‘the gold standard,’’ but that other nations, including Canada, Germany, and Ireland, have conducted national forensic reviews.
‘‘Imagine if they did what was done in Pennsylvania, but nationwide,’’ he said.
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which also includes material from The New York Times.