Survivors, Advocates Call For Change In Light Of Clergy Abuse Report

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HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – A grand jury report on child sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses, released Tuesday, is thought to be the largest of its kind. Nearly 900 pages long, it details the alleged abuse of more than 1,000 children.

The alleged abuse stretches back almost 70 years–and advocates hope the report will convince the legislature to do more for victims past, present and future.

Survivors weep as Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during an August 14, 2018, new conference on the release of a grand jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse of children in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. (Ty Lohr/York Daily Record)

As state Attorney General Josh Shapiro noted at a Harrisburg news conference, it’s graphic.

Take, for instance, this incident from the Pittsburgh dioceses–carried out by at least four priests.

“One boy was forced to stand on a bed in a rectory, strip naked, and pose as Christ on the cross for the priests,” Shapiro said. “They took photos of their victim, adding them to a collection of child pornography which they produced and shared on church grounds.”

There are many stories like that.

A Harrisburg priest abused five sisters in one family. One in Greensburg impregnated a 17-year-old girl, forged a signature on a marriage certificate, and divorced her. Another raped a 7-year old while she was in the hospital recovering from tonsil surgery.

And some leaders, Shapiro noted, covered it up. Some were promoted.

All told, the investigation identified 301 priests.

But some names are blacked out as a number of clergy file appeals.

“My office is not satisfied with the release of a redacted report,” Shapiro said. “Every redaction represents a story of abuse that needs to be told.”

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Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro talks about a statewide grand jury report on Catholic clergy abuse in six dioceses on Tuesday, Aug. 14, in Harrisburg. (Ty Lohr/York Daily Record)

The grand jury’s nearly two-year investigation was initially supposed to be out in late June.

The dioceses themselves didn’t fight the release. But some clergy petitioned against it, arguing since they’re not charged with any crimes, being implicated violates their Constitutional rights.

Hearings on those appeals are being held next month in Philadelphia. And in the meantime, the state Supreme Court ruled a redacted report could be released.

Some church advocates — like Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights — didn’t like the decision.

“No grand jury report should ever be released. Flat statement. Why? Because it’s all hearsay,” he said. “That’s what grand juries are.”

Each of the current bishops in the six dioceses has apologized.

Some, like Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico, publicly supported the release.

“Today, I pledge the following to victims: the Diocese of Erie will not shroud abusers in secrecy no matter who they are or how long ago the abuse has occurred,” he said.

In the state Capitol, a number of survivors shed tears during Shapiro’s remarks. Some openly sobbed from their seats onstage.

Judy Jones of The Survivors Network says there’s a sense of vindication.

“Their stories are finally getting to be told in a sense of the grand jury believed them,” she said. “Somebody believed them, and we’re hoping that more people out there, now that it’s out, will believe them.”

Inside the state Capitol, victim advocates are looking to be heard through different channels.

Mark Rozzi, a Democratic state representative from Berks County, says he was raped by a priest when he was 13.

For several years, he’s pushed legislation that would extend or eliminate Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on sexual abuse.

He also wants to allow victims to file civil lawsuits retroactively. His current proposal would open a two-year window for statute-limited victims to seek damages–something he says would finally make churches own up to what they’ve done.

The grand jury recommended both of Rozzi’s ideas.

“It’s the men who have run these churches, the bishops, the hierarchy–they are the ones who have destroyed the church. Not victims of sexual abuse,” Rozzi said.

Opponents in the legislature say opening churches to lawsuits on decades-old abuse charges could bankrupt them. Others argue the idea is unconstitutional.

Rozzi hopes the report finally get his fellow lawmakers on board.

“It absolutely has to,” he said. “I mean how can a report like this–so expansive–not have an impact on legislators?”

But initial statements are mixed.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, for one, says he supports a version of Rozzi’s bill that doesn’t include a retroactivity provision.

The church supports that one too.

As for the investigation?

Shapiro says it’s not over. If anyone else has information on sexual abuse in Pennsylvania dioceses, the AG’s office is urging them to come forward.

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