Billy Penn in Harrisburg

More than 300 ‘predator priests’ in PA sexually abused hundreds of children, grand jury finds

“We can’t charge most of the culprits,” the state attorney general said, “but we can tell our fellow citizens what happened.”

AG Josh Shapiro outlines the grand jury report

AG Josh Shapiro outlines the grand jury report

Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn
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Updated 4:50 p.m.

HARRISBURG — A grand jury report into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania identified 301 “predator priests” and a systematic coverup of misconduct by church officials.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro summarized the findings: Abuse, deny, cover up.

The two-year investigation focused on the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton dioceses and found credible allegations in each. More than 1,000 child victims were identified, but the grand jury believes “that the real number — of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward — is in the thousands.”

The state’s two other dioceses, Altoona-Johnstown and Philadelphia, were subjects of previous investigations.

Shapiro announced the grand jury’s findings at the state capitol in Harrisburg flanked by more than a dozen survivors, some of whom wept as he detailed in graphic language the abuse allegations.

The 884-page report’s release comes after a protracted court battle to redact the names of accused priests and clergy. While the report released Tuesday is partially redacted, Shapiro vowed to continue to fight for complete transparency.

“My office is not satisfied with the release of a redacted report,” he said.

See the list of priests named in the report here.

How we got here

Prosecutors in Pennsylvania have been investigating abuse allegations within the Catholic church for decades.

In 2005, a grand jury investigation led by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office found that two cardinals concealed the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by clergy between 1967 and 2002. A 2011 follow-up report found several accused priests were still in positions with access to children.

A 2016 grand jury report focused on the Altoona-Johnstown diocese found a similar system of widespread abuse and coverups.

 

The latest report was due for release in June, but its publication was delayed while the Pa. Supreme Court considered redaction requests from some of the clergy named in the report.

“They wanted to cover up the coverup,” Shapiro said Tuesday.

In early August, the Diocese of Harrisburg preemptively released a list of 72 priests accused of abuse.

What the report reveals

The grand jury report not only found hundreds of credible abuse allegations, but also a clear pattern of coverups by senior church officials.

Take the case of Father Ernest Paone of the Pittsburgh diocese, who was reassigned five times during the 1950s and 1960s. He was first reassigned in 1962 after Bishop John Wright was informed Paone had been arrested for “molesting young boys of the parish and the illegal use of guns with even younger parishioners,” per the grand jury report.

This is what happened next:

On August 4, 1964, Robert Masters, the District Attorney of Beaver County, sent a letter to Bishop Vincent Leonard of the Diocese of Pittsburgh with respect to a sexual abuse investigation of Paone. The District Attorney advised the diocese that “in order to prevent unfavorable publicity,” he had “halted all investigations into similar incidents involving young boys.” No further action was taken against Paone.

On September 15, 2017, Masters testified before the grand jury. Masters was confronted with his letter which the Grand Jury obtained from Diocesan files. When asked by the attorney for the Commonwealth why he would defer to the Bishop on a criminal matter, Master replied, “Probably respect for the Bishop. I really have no proper answer.” Masters also admitted he was desirous of support from the diocese for his political career.

Paone was allowed to continue being a priest inside and outside Pennsylvania with the blessing of the Pittsburgh diocese despite officials’ knowledge of the allegations. Then Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl, who is now a cardinal, sent a letter to the Vatican in 1989 detailing the allegations about Paone, but “Wuerl granted Paone’ s request to be reassigned again on October 22, 1991,” according to the grand jury.

“Approximately 41 years after the Diocese learned that Paone was sexually assaulting children, he was finally retired from active ministry,” the grand jury wrote. “In spite of Wuerl’s statements to the Vatican, the clear and present threat that Paone posed to children was hidden and kept secret from parishioners in three states. Wuerl’s statements had been meaningless without any action.”

Father Richard Zula was convicted and jailed on child sex assault charges after being involved in what the grand jury described as “a ring of predatory priests” who “used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims” and created child pornography. In Zula’s case, Wuerl did this:

In March, 1992, Zula informed the diocese that he might be eligible for early release in July and requested that Wuerl confirm his future salary payments to assist him in obtaining his release. In response to Zula’s request, internal diocesean documents revealed that Wuerl directed his subordinates to provide the requested information. The Diocese also agreed to increase Zula’s  sustenance payments to $750 per month after his release and to provide him with medical coverage. When Zula was released in July, 1992, he received a check in the amount of $1,542.68 from the diocese.

Wuerl defended his actions, telling CBS News this week, “If there were allegations, we dealt with them immediately.”

While Philadelphia is not included in this report, priests accused of abuse were reassigned to that diocese.

Just two priests charged

Just two priests were charged as part of the latest investigation.

Shapiro last year announced the indictment of John T. Sweeney, a Catholic Priest from Greensburg, on a felony charge of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. Sweeney pleaded guilty last month to abusing a then-10-year-old boy while employed at a Catholic church in Lower Burrell.

An Erie priest, David Poulson, was charged this year with sexually abusing two boys. The Erie diocese had been aware of abuse allegations against Poulson since 2010, according to the attorney general.

No new charges were announced Tuesday, but Shapiro noted the investigation is “active and ongoing.”

The lack of prosecutions stems from Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations. Currently, survivors of child sexual abuse can file a criminal charge until age 50 and a civil charge until 12 years after their 18th birthday. The majority of the allegations discussed in the grand jury report occurred before the early 2000s.

Advocates including state Rep. Mark Rozzi, who is a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, have called for the passage of legislation to extend the statute of limitations in these cases.

The grand jury recommended eliminating the criminal statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases and the creation of a “civil window” that would allow older victims a chance to seek justice.

What happens next

Those recommendations were two of four made by the grand jury, summarized here by the AG’s office:

  • Eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children. Current law permits victims to come forward until age 50. The grand jury recommends eliminating the criminal statute of limitation entirely for such crimes.
  • Create a “civil window” so older victims may now sue for damages.  Current law gives child sex abuse victims 12 years to sue, once they turn 18. But victims in their 30s and older fall under a different law; they only get two years. The grand jury called that “unacceptable” and recommends a limited “window” offering victims a chance to be heard in court for an additional two years.
  • Clarify penalties for a continuing failure to report child abuse. The grand jury recommends changing the abuse reporting law to clarify the duty to report abuse. The new language imposes a continuing obligation to report “while the person knows or has reasonable cause to believe the abuser is likely to commit additional acts of child abuse.”
  • Specify that Civil Confidentiality Agreements do not cover communications with law enforcement. The grand jury wrote that the Church has used confidentiality agreements as a way to silence abuse victims from speaking publicly or cooperating with law enforcement. The grand jury proposes a new statute which clearly states that no past or present non-disclosure agreement prevents a victim from talking to police. Additionally, future agreements should state contact with police about criminal activity is permitted.

Shapiro called on Pennsylvania dioceses to support all four recommendations and the state House and Senate to adopt legislation that would change the statute of limitations.

“We can’t charge most of the culprits,” Shapiro said, “but we can tell our fellow citizens what happened.”

Victims of clergy abuse are asked to call the attorney general’s hotline: 888-538-8541.

Read the full report below:

The Incline reporter Colin Deppen and Billy Penn political editor Max Marin contributed reporting

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