On Aug. 14, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro sent shock waves through the nation as he and his team released the largest and most in-depth investigation of child sex abuse cases within the Catholic Church. While the report is only reflective of six dioceses in Pennsylvania (Erie, Allentown, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton), its findings have made national news over the past several weeks.
There are profiles of more than 300 Catholic priests and bishops found guilty of sex abuse in the near-thousand page report. What is most shocking about the grand jury report is that the specific cases of more than 1,000 victims cover a span of 70 years and are described in graphic detail.
“These people were visited by emotional death and destruction,” Religious Studies professor Thomas Forsthoefel, Ph. D. said. “It is the most grotesque and cynical distortion of the very mission and substance of the Church.”
Shapiro explained the graphic nature of the report was in order to show transparency and respect for the victims.
“We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated,” the grand jury said in the report. “We are going to name their names and describe what they did — both the sex offenders and the people who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.”
This is not the first time that such allegations were brought forward within the Catholic Church of the United States. Accusations first surfaced in the late 1980s in Louisiana, but were covered and handled on a domestic scale. In 2002, the Boston Globe was the first to fully investigate and uncover years of sexual abuse within the Church that was kept secret by its leaders. This investigation became the subject of “Spotlight,” a 2015 film.
“Since 2002, the Church tried to respond to this with better rules and regulations,” Catholic Studies professor Mary Hembrow-Snyder, Ph.D., said. “But this was so excruciatingly egregious and the victims were treated so inhumanely. The piece for me that is the most salient is the clericalism and deeply systemic structure of oppression which ironically ends up being a structure of protection for those priest predators.”
The diocese of Altoona/Johnstown sparked the latest investigation as secret archives containing information about previous sex abuse reports and how they were handled were found. Following Altoona/Johnstown, the diocese of Philadelphia investigated its history of abuse reports. It was after the precedent of these Pennsylvania dioceses that Shapiro launched a full investigation of the other six Catholic dioceses in the state, hearing testimonies and collecting data ever since.
As more reports were discovered, the Church began to take its own steps to ensure more safety and transparency. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, and has revised the act again in 2005, 2011 and 2018.
“The testimony is being presented and the majority of it is from the 1940s-1970s; most of it is in the past. I do not want this to appear as an excuse. I am just putting it in context,” said Mercyhurst Chaplain and Interim Director of Campus Ministry, the Rev. Jim Piszker. “Recent cases have dropped dramatically in that time. There should be none, but we are doing a lot better than what we were.”
Religious scholars seek to understand what it means when human failings taint the image of divine institutions and leaders.
“Our charge in this little corner of the academy is to look honestly at the darkness in religion,” Forsthoefel said. “It is not limited to the Catholic Church. If you look at any permutation of religion you are going to see profoundly troubling, worrying and dark impulses. It erodes faith. It debreeds the cohesion of the community. It is a very sociologically troublesome thing.”
The systematic nature of the cover-up is most troubling for Catholics.
“We are Americans, so we want to reach for answers, we want to reach for fixing it, but this is the kind of thing you aren’t going to fix. There are no easy answers for this,” Piszker said. “When you get into a systemic kind of issue like this, there is a complexity there that is going to take time to come to terms with. I am struggling, too.”
Hembrow-Snyder suggests how the clericalism must be dealt with among Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope.
“It’s not enough to say we need prayer and fasting,” Hembrow-Snyder said. “There needs to be something profoundly public in terms of atonement for this sin to help all of us who are Catholics begin to have a little bit of hope.”
Failures within religious communities stem from human tendency.
“No matter how divine these religious communities are, they are also human institutions and are also going to be inflicted with sin and harm,” Forsthoefel said. “The question is can any religion have enough honesty and self awareness to pull back from self-centered interest?”
It has been difficult for religious and Catholic studies professors to make sense of the distortion of the Church’s message in their classes.
“Can you imagine how difficult for us who teach course in social justice and ethics, when we talk about Catholic teaching on sexual morality, the students are like ‘really?’ The students are somber. You can see the harm that has been done,” said Hembrow-Snyder.
Some current church leaders such as Erie Catholic Bishop Lawrence T. Persico are stepping up to face the issues head on. Persico was the only bishop out of the six dioceses to testify before the grand jury in person, listening to their grievances and offering apology. His actions have been noticed and respected throughout the aftermath of the report as being sincere and forthcoming.
“I think Bishop Persico has made the people of this diocese proud that he is our bishop for the infinite sensitivity and compassion he has shown toward the victims,” said Hembrow-Snyder. “He has been an outlier in terms of his integrity and courage in facing this issue.”
Many are concerned with the future of the church and if this scandal will cause people to leave Catholicism all together.
“I think that when it comes to the concept of faith, a lot of people understand that their faith transcends this. It is a monumental failure, but it is not the core of why we do what we do in the faith,” Piszker said.
Forsthoefel suggests that the Church should support those who may need distance from the Church and allow them to heal, while still hoping for their return.
“It is a betrayal. But life is filled with betrayal from time to time, and part of life is dealing with that,” Forsthoefel said. “We must let them know that we love them and we understand that they need distance. The church has to reform itself to regain the trust of the people. The church’s long history has been through many crises before, so presumably it will recover.”
Mercyhurst students have been struggling to make sense of the scandal within the Church.
“I immediately felt sick. My heart broke for the victims and their families,” sophomore Catholic Devotions leader Allie Schweiger said.
Members of Campus Ministry remain hopeful that the Church can move past what has happened.
“How can something so wrong occur in a place that should be surrounded in love, trust and community in the Lord?” junior MYRACLE leader Erin Almeter said. “I think what is important now is to grieve over this sin and pray for the victims. Yes, this was horrible. Yes, my faith was shaken. But I’m not going to turn my back on the Catholic faith because God has never turned his back on us.”
Catholics everywhere are faced with these realities and must figure out the best way to handle the resulting emotions.
Piszker urges people to take to prayer as well with these complicated emotions of anger, confusion or sorrow. He points specifically to Prayers of Lamentation in which one pours out any emotions and struggles in their heart and soul to God as honestly as possible through prayer. This practice is not for God to somehow change what has been done, but to help one cope and heal.
“The first and foremost thing we need to do is to be with it,” Piszker said. “In the sense that we are taking stock of what we’re feeling about it — which is not easy — before we begin to understand what we are thinking about it.”