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Grand jury: More than 300 'predator priests' in Pennsylvania protected by Catholic Church

The report details the latest in a decades-long series of claims of abuse and protection leveled against the church around the world.
Credit: CLAUDIO REYES / AFP / Getty Images
Picture of a cross taken in Punta de Tralca, west of Santiago, on July 30, 2018.

More than 300 "predator priests" in six Roman Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania were protected by church leaders more interested in safeguarding the church and the abusers than tending to their victims, a scathing grand jury report to be released Tuesday claims.

Small parts of the voluminous report were made public in advance of the release via court documents.

“The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid scandal,” the report says. "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.”

The redacted report details the latest in a decades-long series of claims of abuse and protection leveled against the church across the nation and around the world. As recently as last month, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of prominent Vatican official Cardinal Theodore McCarrick amid claims of sexual abuse almost 40 years ago.

The Pennsylvania report accused church leaders in the state of discouraging victims from reporting the crimes, which span more than 60 years.

“Several diocesan administrators, including the bishops, often dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to police, pressured law enforcement to terminate or avoid an investigation or conducted their own deficient, biased investigation without reporting crimes against children to the proper authorities,” the report says.

Some of the accused have died, and statute of limitations laws prevent many others from facing criminal charges.

One priest named in the report pleaded guilty last month to charges that he sexually abused a 10-year-old boy more than 20 years ago. Another has been charged with felony child sex crimes.

The grand jury compiled the information during a two-year investigation. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the report an "honest and comprehensive accounting of widespread sexual abuse" in the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton that minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month ordered release of the document but named a county judge to negotiate how much would be withheld from public view. Some current and former priests who deny the allegations fought to have their names redacted.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Pittsburgh's bishop for 18 years until 2006, now serves as the archbishop of Washington. He sent a letter to Washington priests defending his efforts on behalf of victims and claiming a "zero tolerance policy" for clergy abuse, the Associated Press reported.

“It moved me not simply to address these acts, but to be fully engaged, to meet with survivors and their families, and to do what I could to bring them comfort and try to begin a process for healing,” Wuerl wrote.

The Erie Diocese last week released a list of more than 60 people "credibly accused" of actions that the diocese said disqualified them from working with children. Bishop Lawrence Persico, in a letter this week preparing parishioners for the grand jury report, said it was "shocking to read the graphic details" of the abuse claims.

"The most important thing I want to do at this moment is to express my sorrow to the victims of sexual abuse that occurred within the Diocese of Erie," Persico wrote. "They have experienced cruel behavior by the very individuals who should have had the greatest interest in protecting them."

The Harrisburg Diocese earlier this month identified 71 priests and other members of the church who had been accused of child sex abuse.

"That conduct has left a legacy of pain and sorrow that is still being felt," Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer wrote in a letter to the diocese."I apologize for these actions."

Gainer also announced sweeping changes to confidentiality policies and stripped from any place of honor in the diocese the names of bishops and others associated with the abuses.

Previous grand jury investigations found widespread abuse in the Philadelphia archdiocese and Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

Sexual abuse scandals have rocked the Roman Catholic Church for decades, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. Courts and prosecutors have filed indictments and sued for damages in the ongoing efforts to hold the church accountable for the abuse crisis.

Several high-ranking clergy members, including the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Australia, have gone to prison or been ordered to serve home detention sentences.

The scandals have also hit the church hard financially, and many dioceses have paid millions in compensation to victims. In June, the Roman Catholic Church of Rochester divulged that it had paid $1.6 million to at least 20 children who had been sexually abused by 24 priests since 1950.

Eighteen U.S. dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy protection during the ongoing sexual abuse crisis, according to the website BishopAccountability.org, which tracks sexual abuse cases.

A 19th, the Diocese of St. Cloud in Minnesota, announced plans in February to file for bankruptcy protection.The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said in late May that it has agreed to pay a $210 million settlement to 450 victims of clergy sexual abuse, one of the largest payouts to date in the U.S. over the scandal.

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