August 14. 2018 11:58PM

Catholic Church covered up sex abuse by 300 priests — Pa. report

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Cardinal Donald Wuerl prays at the National Day of Prayer ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Cheriss May/Sipa USA/TNS)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Top Roman Catholic leaders in Pennsylvania routinely covered up child sex abuse by hundreds of priests over decades, according to a long-awaited grand jury report released Tuesday.

The nearly 900-page document — the product of what may be the most comprehensive examination to date of clergy sex abuse across a single state — accused church officials in six of Pennsylvania's eight dioceses of routinely prioritizing their institution over the welfare of children.

More than 300 accused priests were singled out — though some names remained redacted amid an ongoing court fight over the accuracy of the report's findings and the damage it could cause to the reputations of some identified within it. Dozens of church superiors were also named as complicit, including some who have risen to prominent national postings.

"All of (the victims) were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all," the report says. "Priests were raping little boys and girls and the men of God who were responsible not only did nothing: They hid it all."

The report arrives amid a new wave of accusations that have upended Catholic congregations across the United States and resulted in the resignation of one cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, formerly the archbishop of Washington.

Among those named by the Pennsylvania grand jury is McCarrick's successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a onetime Pittsburgh bishop and now one of Pope Francis' top advisers in the United States.

Wuerl, who took the helm of the western Pennsylvania diocese in 1988, was faulted by the grand jury for failing to do enough to protect children from predators during his two decades there — a claim he denied in a statement, saying he "acted with diligence, with concern for the survivors, and to prevent future acts of abuse."

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday in Harrisburg, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said diocesan administrators across the state dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to police, pressured law enforcement to terminate or avoid investigations or conducted their own biased probes without referring allegations to proper authorities.

"The abuse was rampant and widespread," he said, before an audience that included several of the priests' accusers, some of whom testified before the grand jury. "It touched every diocese and it is horrifying."

The findings are also all but certain to add fuel to the flames of long-simmering battles in the Harrisburg, including debates over the fairness of the state's grand jury system and stalled legislation that would allow childhood victims to sue their abusers and others decades after an assault occurred.

In many respects, the report's broad conclusions — the result of a two-year probe led by Shapiro's office — resemble those of the 2005 grand jury report that assailed the Philadelphia Archdiocese over its handling of dozens of accused priests.

The patterns described in its pages also mirror tactics revealed in dioceses worldwide since the church scandal erupted in Boston 16 years ago: Priests preyed on vulnerable children and their superiors either ignored or hid allegations while shuffling abusers from parish to parish.

Despite the wide-ranging criminal behavior described, grand jurors did not recommend any new charges be filed. Many of the alleged abusers identified in the report are either dead or long since removed from ministry — their offenses now beyond the state's statute of limitations for sex crimes. The accusations against several have been public for years.

And yet in its scope and breadth, the report released Tuesday was remarkable. The investigation spanned sexual misconduct stretching back seven decades, incorporated accounts of more than 1,000 victims and drew upon "secret archives" of allegations maintained by the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, Scranton, Erie and Greensburg — together home to more than 1.7 million Roman Catholics.

Pennsylvania's other dioceses — Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown — were not included because previous grand juries had already scrutinized their handling of clergy sex abuse claims.

Several of the dioceses planned statements or news conferences to respond to the report, and some had already taken pre-emptive steps.

Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg and Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie sought to blunt the impact of the report in recent weeks by opening their own archives and releasing names of all priests who had had abuse allegations lodged against them.

Wuerl — whose predecessor in Pittsburgh, Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua, later led the Philadelphia archbishop for 15 years — last week called for a national panel to investigate allegations against bishops in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter.

In a statement Tuesday, Wuerl referred to the clergy sex abuse scandal as "a terrible tragedy."