Anthea Butler The grand jury report about Catholic priest abuse in Pennsylvania shows the church is a criminal syndicate

The Catholic church hierarchy systematically covered up the abuse of at least 1,000 kids by 300 priests over 70 years.
A man prays at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as he waits for Pope Francis to lead an open-air mass in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Sept. 27, 2015.Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images
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By Anthea Butler

It is time to face the horrible truth: The Catholic church is a pedophile ring.

According to the grand jury report of six dioceses in Pennsylvania, over a period of 70 years, 300 priests abused over 1,000 children in Pennsylvania and church officials repeatedly covered it up. The release of the report is a searing indictment of the filth that has existed in the Catholic church.

Sexual abuse has been institutionalized, routinized and tolerated by the church hierarchy for decades. If you think this statement is hyperbole, consider that the grand jury report includes, but is by no means limited to, the case of a ring of pedophile priests in Pittsburgh, who raped their male victims, took pornographic pictures of them and marked them by giving them gold crosses to wear so that they could be easily recognized by other abusers.

At an emotional news conference Tuesday, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro stood before some of the victims of the abuse in the six Pennsylvania dioceses (which include Pittsburgh and the state capital Harrisburg). Announcing the report, Shapiro said that, for the first time, “we can begin to understand the systematic coverup of church officials.”

The report was written by 23 grand jurors wrote over the course of two years, and is very clear about how the authorities of the church protected the clergy while further abusing victims with payoffs, silencing and attempts to denigrate their character. Two cardinals, Cardinal Wuerl and the now-deceased Cardinal Bevilacqua (who also figured prominently in the Philadelphia grand jury report), are among those who disciplined but moved around clergy who sexually abused children.

While this report covers only six dioceses in Pennsylvania (there are eight in total, but the archdioceses of Philadelphia and the diocese of Altoona-Johnston were the subject of three previous grand jury investigations), it is breathtakingly horrific in documenting the scope of sexual abuse of children. It chronicles in detail how the Catholic hierarchy from the diocese to the Vatican worked not only mitigate the church's legal exposure, but to maintain strategies to “avoid scandal.”

Sexual abuse has been institutionalized, routinized and tolerated by the church hierarchy for decades.

These strategies used to subvert stories of abuse were so common that the FBI reviewed a significant portion of the evidence collected and received by the grand jury and found a series of practices engaged in by church leaders to conceal the truth. For instance, church authorities who documented the cases for internal use never used the word "rape," only “inappropriate contact.” Investigations were conducted by other clergy members, rather than trained personnel. Church-run health centers, not lay psychiatric facilities, were used to examine priests accused of pedophilia. Housing and funds were provided for priests, even when it was known they were raping children. Priests were moved from the area only if their communities found out, to other communities where the abusers and abuses were not known. Most importantly, the hierarchy was instructed to not inform law enforcement about abuses reported by parishioners, but to consider any such case an “internal personnel matter.”

These practices sanctioned by the church hierarchy allowed the abuse of children to continue.

The grand jury report is also rife with horror upon horror — anal rape, fondling, oral sex, child pornography, pregnancies, suicides — perpetrated upon children by priests, who were then moved about by church leaders who knew full well the despicable deeds they had done to children, and often did again.

For instance, one woman was raped by a priest at the age of seven in her hospital room after surgery on her tonsils, was raped again by the same priest at age 13, and then again at age 19 while pregnant; she considered suicide. What was the priest's punishment for that and the other rapes and molestations to which he admitted? Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, in submitting the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated: “I believe the scandal caused by his admission of the sexual abuse of minor girls has been sufficiently repaired by acceptance of the penal precept.” In other words, Gainer did not want the priest defrocked and so, as punishment, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith decided, after reviewing his file, that the priest in question should lead a life of prayer and penance.

Prayer, and penance. An inadequate, paltry response for repeatedly raping a child.

What is clear from this report — as well as the previous grand jury reports from Philadelphia in 2005 and 2011 and Altoona-Johnston in 2016 — is that the Catholic church cannot be and never should have been trusted nor expected to root out pedophiles in the midst, let alone punish them appropriately. Mercy was not extended to victims, but to perpetrators.

Rules, it seems, were for the Catholics who continued to sit in the pews, not the ones who stood at the altars. The former were supposed to refrain from premarital sex, same-sex relationships, abortions and masturbation. The sexual prohibitions of the church did not extend to the clergy raping children, and priests in Pennsylvania even got a pass for paying for abortions for young girls they raped and got pregnant.

Adding insult to injury, the Catholic church in Pennsylvania is currently fighting an effort by Rep. Mark Rozzi, himself a victim of clergy sexual abuse, to have the civil statute of limitation in such cases eliminated. Currently, victims can file civil claims until the age of 30 and criminal claims until the age of 50; the church supports the latter but opposes the former. Once again, the desire to protect the church, not the victims of the clergy, continues to be the priority for bishops and cardinals in the Catholic Church.

Rules, it seems, were for the Catholics who continued to sit in the pews, not the ones who stood at the altars.

It is long past time for not only abusive priests, but monsignors, bishops and cardinals to be held accountable by local, state and federal law enforcement for their crimes against children. To date, the only administrator convicted of any crime was Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, whose conviction was subsequently overturned, and has been scheduled for retrial. But most of those who habitually moved abusers, such as Cardinal Wuerl, enjoy the prestige and perks of being high-ranking clergy, while many abused children must try to manage their physical and psychological pain.

What the now-multiple Pennsylvania grand jury reports show clearly is that the Roman Catholic church has treated the protection of its pedophiles, rapists and sexual abusers as their highest priority. They have been unwilling and unable to police clergy sexual abuse while determined to keep responsibility for doing so within the Church — but they don't want to be held accountable for mishandling it. Like a criminal syndicate, it is time for the Church to be broken apart and cleaned out.

Anthea Butler

Anthea Butler is an associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of "Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World" (The University of North Carolina Press) and her forthcoming book is tentatively titled “From Palin to Trump: Evangelicals, Race, and Nationalism” (The New Press).

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