Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church
Grand Jury report details decades of abuse by clergy and church’s efforts to conceal the documents
In August 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a report that examined and detailed hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clergy members within the Catholic Church. The report came after an investigation spanning nearly two years, one which probed through decades of accusations involving six Catholic dioceses across the state of Pennsylvania. The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury Report indicated there were more than 300 credibly accused clergy responsible for abusing and molesting over 1,000 children since the late 1940s. The report also noted the vigorous attempts of the Catholic Church hierarchy, all the way up to the Vatican, to cover up the incidents and hide documents in an attempt to downplay the accusations and protect the pedophile clergy. As a result, Catholics around the world have begun to lose trust in an organization they had respected for so long.
During a news conference in August, Pennsylvania Attorney General Robert Shapiro graphically described the tactics the clergy used to justify their actions and deceive their victims.
“Predators in every diocese ‘weaponized’ the Catholic faith and used it as a tool of their abuse”, Shapiro said, citing how clergy claimed their actions were vindicated by their faith.
During the conference, Shapiro ardently detailed several incidents included in the scathing 1,400 page report. One of the stories about Fr. Raymond Lukac, a priest assigned to the Holy Trinity Church in Ford City, Pennsylvania, summarized his sexual relations with minors and his impregnation of a 17-year-old girl, whom he secretly married by forging the pastor’s signature on the marriage certificate then divorced after she gave birth.
The overall message of the jury report signified a call for reform. It addressed the current statute of limitations, which has made it difficult for victims to seek justice against their offenders. Under the current Pennsylvania statute, victims have until they are 30 to file suits and until 50 to file criminal charges. In order to reform this law, the jury made four suggestions:
- Elimination of the statute of limitations
- Expand the window for filing civil suits
- Clarify and strengthen the laws requiring the reporting of abuse and subsequent penalties if an organization fails to comply
- Ban civil confidentiality agreements which prevent abuse victims from talking to law enforcement and reporting the offender
Though this pattern of predatory and pedophilic behavior has been documented since the early 1950s, it was not until the mid-1980s that sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clerics started to become publicized and covered by the media on a more national scale. Since then, over 3,000 civil lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic Church, with the number of allegations increasing every year. According to a database put together by BishopAccountability.org, an online archive established by lay Catholics to document the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, the incidents of abuse are spread throughout various positions within the church. While the majority of the accused are priests, those in other positions of ministry such as bishops, deacons, and nuns have also been accused of sexual abuse towards minors.
According to data from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, an organization whose purpose is to “promote the greater good which the Church offers humankind”, they report receiving allegations from over 18,500 victims, however this figure is universally acknowledged to be lower than the actual number. Records from 2017 indicate that the majority of victims were abused between the ages of 10-14. This particular study focused on minors and recounted the various ages of abuse and when they started.
The growing amount of civil lawsuits filed by victims has taken a significant financial toll on the church. According to data from BishopAccountability.org, over $3 billion has been spent by dioceses and religious orders on out of court settlements and court ordered awards since the mid-1980s. The burden has led 19 dioceses and religious orders in the United States to file for bankruptcy protection over the past 14 years. $500 million was awarded in between 2003-2008 alone, as dioceses across the nation dealt with the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal. In 2015, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis paid an estimated $210 million to about 400 victims who had filed lawsuits against their subdivision. This lone case demonstrates the ever-increasing rise in lawsuits that will continue to be filed as more victims speak out.
The recent grand jury case has inspired hundreds of survivors to come out and demonstrate against the Catholic Church, citing the current statute of limitations as a major problem that should be changed. Former Catholic priest and clergy sexual abuse survivor Dr. Robert Hoatson has been an outspoken advocate against the issue for a long time, and he hopes this most recent investigation will influence others to demonstrate for a change.
“They all knew it was going on, everybody knew it was going on,” Hoatson said. “No one had the courage to step up and stop it.”
Parishioners were shocked by the news of the recent scandal. The church had kept the matter internal and did not allow any information to leak into the public realm before the grand jury report. Once released, archdioceses around the country mandated all parishes to inform their parishioners of the incident and the steps that the church was taking to handle the matter. Alexandra Crescimbeni, a faithful parishioner for over a decade, was just one of the many stunned by the news.
“It’s just really disturbing to know that a holy minister would choose to manipulate and take advantage of a child in such a way,” Crescimbeni said.
FBI agents continue to issue subpoenas and raid the offices of Catholic dioceses throughout the country. The current statute of limitations makes it hard for legal personnel to file charges and seek criminal or civil penalties for accused clergy. Yet, the large amount of attention the grand jury report has brought to the issue has many officials hopeful that change is near.
Until the problem surrounding clergy sexual abuse is addressed, the Catholic Church will continue to live in shadow of this scandal.