January 25, 2019


The Pennsylvania grand jury report: Is it true?

Three scandals erupted in the summer of 2018 that have occasioned anger, frustration and deep disappointment among Catholics. The first was the revelation last June of accusations of sexual abuse by Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, which forced him to resign from the College of Cardinals and be placed under sanctions imposed by Pope Francis while the accusations against him are investigated by the Vatican.

The second scandal was the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August. This state-sponsored investigation documents more than 1,000 instances of clergy sexual abuse dating back many decades. It also accuses bishops and diocesan officials in Pennsylvania with the most callous disregard for victims and a consistent pattern of coverup.

A third scandal involved the testimony of a former apostolic nuncio to the United States which accused Pope Francis and high-level Vatican officials of knowing about, and subsequently ignoring, the accusations against former Cardinal McCarrick.

Together, these three scandals created a perfect storm which prompted the American bishops to propose actions that would strengthen the zero tolerance and child protection provisions enacted in 2002 in the Dallas Charter. More significantly, at its November annual meeting in Baltimore, the bishops had hoped to vote on measures that would hold all bishops accountable for their personal conduct and for their handling of cases involving the abuse of minors and adults entrusted to their care.

As has been widely reported, Rome requested that these proposed actions be delayed until after the February meeting called by Pope Francis for the presidents of all the world’s bishops’ conferences. At this gathering, representatives of the universal Church will discuss the global problem of clergy sexual abuse.

As detailed in a major article published by Commonweal magazine in its Jan. 9 issue, at least one of the three major scandals, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, has been misreported broadly and irresponsibly. As a result, many people have uncritically accepted as true allegations that are either plainly untrue or deserving of much greater qualification.

Peter Steinfels, a former religion editor for The New York Times and a writer who has covered stories of clergy sex abuse since the 1990s, writes: “Within hours, the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was propelled to international status. The Vatican expressed ‘shame and sorrow.’ Adjectives piled up from Catholic and secular sources: abominable, revolting, reprehensible, nauseating, diabolical. The New York Times editorialized on ‘The Catholic Church’s Unholy Stain.’

“In fact, the report makes not one but two distinct charges. The first one concerns predator priests, their many victims, and their unspeakable acts. That charge is, as far as can be determined, dreadfully true,” Steinfels writes. “Appalling as is this first charge, it is in fact the second 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.’ ”

But, Steinfels asks, is it true? The first charge is, as far as can be determined, dreadfully true. But unfortunately, the nature of a grand jury report makes it difficult, or even impossible, for many of those who have been accused, or their family members, to respond to the charges against them and clear their names. But it’s the second charge—that the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all—that Steinfels demonstrates as false.

“What does the report not document?” Steinfels asks. “It does not document the sensational charges contained in its introduction—namely, that over seven decades Catholic authorities, in virtual lockstep, supposedly brushed aside all victims and did absolutely nothing in the face of terrible crimes against boys and girls—except to conceal them. This ugly, indiscriminate, and inflammatory charge, unsubstantiated by the report’s own evidence, to say nothing of the evidence the report ignores, is truly unworthy of a judicial body responsible for impartial justice.”

These are serious charges made by a responsible journalist who has thoroughly examined the report’s 1,000-plus pages, and compared it with historical data and the investigations conducted by independent agencies at the request of dioceses and other groups. Steinfels in no way condones the sins and crimes of abusers. He also does not excuse the genuine mistakes made by bishops—in the past or the present. But he does expose the political motivations and anti-Catholic bias of the report’s writers.

“This conclusion does not acquit the Catholic hierarchy of all sins, past or present,” Steinfels writes. “But the Dallas Charter has apparently proved to be an institutional success. It set out, and has regularly fine-tuned, procedures, practices, and standards that can be overseen by middling caretaker leaders as well as outstanding, proactive ones.

“The Dallas Charter is decidedly not a recipe that can simply be transferred to any society or culture or legal and governmental situation around the globe,” he continues. “But American bishops should go to the Vatican’s February summit meeting on sexual abuse confident that the measures they’ve already adopted have made an important difference.”

The horrors are real, but solutions will not be found by making untrue, ugly or inflammatory accusations. The truth we seek must be accurate, impartial and worthy of both our Church and the civil society in which we live.

Above all, our commitment to protect the most vulnerable members of our society must be built on the truth which must always inform our attempts to achieve justice and equality for all.

—Daniel Conway

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