'The murder of souls' -- Covering massive Pennsylvania sex abuse doc = brutal assignment

We’ve been bracing ourselves for this all summer.

Yesterday, a massive grand jury report (full text here) was released covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses of 1.7 million parishioners. It was the largest such report ever done in this country.

There’s not a whole lot out there that can shunt the horrors of the Cardinal McCarrick affair onto a back burner, but this report fits that bill. It is a stunning summary of degradation and evil that reporters have known about for years and have been waiting to dissect all year. I'm predicting it will be the religion story of the year in the annual Religion News Association poll.

The grand jury subpoenaed a half million pages of church internal documents. Think about that. Then they came down upon a number of bishops for going out of their way to hide these horrors over a 70-year period of time. And when did things begin to change?

When the media, starting with the Boston Globe, began reporting on this story in 2002. Think about that next time you hear Donald Trump bloviating about all journalists being the "enemy of the people."

First, listen to the video of the Pennsylvania state attorney general’s R-rated press conference in Harrisburg that introduced this report. It’s atop this blog post.

We’ll start with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s reporting, the lead story of which was written by their courts reporter, Paula Reed Ward. (She posted on her Twitter feed early yesterday a photo of all the media lining up for the press conference at which the report was released).

The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury identified more than 1,000 child victims from more than 300 abusive priests across 54 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties…
In a scathing introduction that provides excruciating detail of only a handful of instances of abuse, the introduction explains the grand jury's purpose, its findings and its ultimate recommendations.
"Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls, too. Some were teens; many were pre-pubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all."

Church leaders described rapes of children by grown male priests as “horse play,” “wrestling” and “inappropriate contact.”

Although the grand jury excoriates the abusive priests, it is no less hard on the bishops who oversaw them, ignored the abuse, or willingly moved them from parish to parish. ...

Then, quoting the report:

"What we can say, though, is that despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability. 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," they wrote. "For decades, monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted. Until that changes we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”

All the evidence is so massive, it’s numbing. Again, you can read the 884-page report here. (When I was a beginning crime reporter for a small Oregon daily, my chief duty was to read all the police reports. The worst were the rape reports. Reading portions of the grand jury investigation brings up reminders of the godawful stuff I was forced to read back then. So be forewarned.) And remember that reporters only got this thing in the middle of the day, so all these articles were rushed into print with probably only a cursory scan of the report’s almost 900 pages.

Post-Gazette religion reporter Peter Smith, who has been following this story for a long time,  interviewed people on the grand jury regarding their feelings about the report. Unfortunately, a paywall prevents me from posting more of those pieces.

The Philadelphia Inquirer had three bylines in this story, along with a bunch of other names of contributing reporters. Some excerpts:

The allegations stretch back to the 1940s, detailing child rapes and groping that mirrored the reports that have roiled the church worldwide. But the document includes several uniquely disturbing accounts of its own -- including one of a 1970s pedophile and child pornography ring in Pittsburgh among priests who whipped their victims and took photos of one boy as he posed naked as if on the cross.
One priest in Southwestern Pennsylvania is said to have sexually abused a boy in a confessional. Another, from Allentown, allegedly forced a boy to give him oral sex and then cleansed the child’s mouth with holy water. Two priests impregnated teens; one urged an abortion, the other arranged a secret marriage.

It ran a bunch of sidebars, including one on how the bishops were to blame for all this.

The grand jury said the state’s bishops had misused their power and enabled the victimization of children: transferring abusive priests, failing to notify police of their crimes, misleading the public about their misconduct, and, in the case of one alleged molester, even officiating at his funeral.
“A priest is a priest,” Bishop Donald Wuerl, then the church leader in Erie, declared at the service for the Rev. George Zirwas, who had been repeatedly accused of groping boys over two decades. “Once he is ordained, he is a priest forever.”
In a statement later Tuesday, Wuerl said the church had “deep sorrow and contrition” about the abuse. At the same time, he said he had acted with “concerns for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”

One theme I am picking up is that Wuerl is in deep trouble. Ever since June, he’s been asserting that he knew nothing of then-Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual abuse of seminarians in the 1980s even though the rumors were so widespread, even a number of journalists were aware of them. He also said he knew nothing about the financial settlements with victims, either.

A lot of press reports that I found during a five-hour search into the early hours of this morning pictured Wuerl more than other bishops in their coverage. It's not a good scenario for a 77-year-old cardinal serving two years past his retirement age.

Mindful of his reputation, Wuerl conducted a pre-emptive strike in an Aug. 13 letter to priests in his archdiocese defending his two-decade sojourn in Pittsburgh. This does not sound like a man who is contrite and broken about the irreparable damage to thousands of young people in his home state. 

The Post-Gazette dealt with Wuerl in a sidebar. The Washington Post alluded to Wuerl briefly here:

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, currently 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, at times stopping abusive priests from continuing in their ministries in the diocese and at other times guiding them back into parishes.

It then ran a separate article that gives both sides of the story, saying that Wuerl was ahead of his time in terms of dealing with priestly abusers but that he had some clear judgment failures. It’s probably the kindest article out there about the cardinal right now.

CBS ran a response from Wuerl, then interviewed six abuse survivors, all of whom have left the Catholic Church. All of them were furious about the state’s criminal statute of limitations that forbids anyone more than 30 years old from filing civil law suits and shields the perpetrators. The grand jury is urging the state Legislature to do away with the statute and allow victims to file lawsuits against their dioceses no matter how many years have passed. 

Obviously the Catholic Church is going to fight this one, as a change in state law and the ensuing wave of lawsuits will bankrupt all six dioceses. Eighteen dioceses and religious orders have already filed for bankruptcy.

KDKA, the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, pointed out that one-third of the named priests were from the Pittsburgh diocese, Wuerl’s former base.

Even the Los Angeles Times went after Wuerl. A story written by one of its national reporters details how one sex abuser was transferred to Los Angeles by Wuerl’s predecessors and that Wuerl kept up the charade by transferring the same priest –- listed in good standing -– to a Nevada diocese in 1991. Twelve years passed before Wuerl suspended that priest.

The New York Times put a national angle on it all:

No other state has seen more grand jury investigations of abuses in the church than Pennsylvania, where about one of every four residents is Catholic and the local attorneys general have been particularly responsive to victims. Previous grand juries examined the dioceses of Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown; the new report covers the rest of the state.
Mr. Shapiro was surrounded on Tuesday by about 20 abuse victims and their family members, who gasped and wept when he revealed that one priest had abused five sisters in the same family, including one girl beginning when she was 18 months old…
The Pennsylvania grand jury met for two years, reviewed 500,000 documents from dioceses’ secret archives, and heard testimony from dozens of victims and the bishop of Erie. The report covers the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Two of the dioceses — Greensburg and Harrisburg — tried to quash the grand jury investigation last year, but later backed off that stance.
The report lists each of the accused priests and documents how they were sent from parish to parish, and even sometimes out of state. The grand jury said that while the list is long, “we don’t think we got them all.” The report added, “We feel certain that many victims never came forward, and that the dioceses did not create written records every single time they heard something about abuse.”

In terms of TV coverage, CNN’s report showed some prior homework (and fast reading) by its two reporters who found certain X-rated items in the report that I didn’t see covered by other media.

I do want to point out this BBC piece as an example of awful reporting. First, Wuerl’s title is not “archbishop” and secondly, his letter was not to priests in Pittsburgh but to priests in the Washington archdiocese.

There are a number of questions here that reporters need to be asking:

(1) We’re only talking about six dioceses in one state here. What would happen if attorney generals in all 50 states did similar investigations?

(2) What are these bishops saying to each other? How -- or is -- the Vatican dealing with this? It is under great pressure to do something.

(3) Whispers in the Loggia blogger Rocco Palmo tweeted that two bishops independently have told him of these latest revelations that, "This is worse than 2002," when the Globe's articles were first published and the bishops met in Dallas to write their historic Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Is that true?

(4) Do Catholics elsewhere in the country care about what's happening in Pennsylvania? Or are they so sick of hearing about corruption in their church's leaders that they've tuned out for good?

(5) Are there any parts of the report that are inaccurate?

I'll leave you with one of the opening paragraphs of the grand jury report:

“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have head some of it before. There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”  


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