Column: Grand jury report casts the Catholic priesthood in the darkest light

We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. There have been other reports of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier reports happened somewhere else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.

— from the Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report

The latest bombshell in the continuing, long-running saga of the sexual abuse of boys and young men by Catholic priests exploded into public view last week when Pennsylvania’s attorney general issued a scathing grand jury report. With every nauseating paragraph, it is as powerful an indictment of the priesthood and the Catholic hierarchy as has been put forth since the sex abuse scandal in the church erupted in Boston in 2002.

A reading of this document, large parts of which are stomach-turning, can bring even a faithful supporter of the church to the only conclusion possible: The priesthood has long been home to legions of warped men who have realized their criminal sexual desires while ruining lives all around them — all the while lecturing parishioners about following the Gospel.

And while this group of deranged predators pursued their victims, their superiors ran a protection racket to make sure — even as they paid out millions in settlements to victims — that the pubic never found out how truly sick so many members of the priesthood really are.

By Monday, Pope Francis and others had issued statements of shock and revulsion at the latest revelations, using words like “shame” and “repentance” and asking for forgiveness. Catholics, myself included, have heard all this before, and it’s getting old. If a scandal of this staggering magnitude occurred in a corporation or public institution, all the top officials, including the board of directors, would be sacked and the entity itself shuttered.

So the Catholic church will continue to say how sorry they are, until another scandal erupts in another state and the hollow apology echoes again.

Before diving into some of the report’s grim details, let’s bring this story closer to home: Sacred Heart Parish in Cutchogue was home to several predator priests who were exposed in a January 2003 grand jury report prepared by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, which was based on the diocese’s internal records. That report shows that “Priest A” and “Priest H” were both assigned to Sacred Heart after being caught as abusers in other parishes.

These men of God were sent to Sacred Heart by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which never informed the priest in charge of the parish at that time about the accusations against them. .

Everyone but a few high-ranking insiders at the diocese was kept in the dark while these predator priests worked in this parish. They performed marriages and baptisms. They had dinner in parishioners’ homes. The parents of young boys surely didn’t know. These priests didn’t wear cowbells around their necks to warn everyone where they were — the way lepers were treated at the time of Christ as told in the Gospel.

The Pennsylvania report shows that, over the course of 70 years, more than 300 ordained priests in that state raped and abused more than 1,000 boys and some girls. The details are graphic and horrific. The scope is just staggering: More than 1,000 victims. Three hundred priests. In one state.

And consider this: If 300 priests were involved in abuse, how many hundreds more knew about it and said or did nothing to stop it?

In the report, there are accounts of rapes of all sorts. Among the victimized girls, there are accounts of pregnancies and even abortions. The church that can’t stop talking about its high and mighty objection to the practice of abortion in this country covered up for priests whose victims had them.

The nearly 900-page report is a litany of the sick and the depraved: A priest raped a young girl while she was in a hospital bed recovering from surgery. Another impregnated a 17-year-old girl, then forged documents to show they were “married.” A priest sexually abused a 9-year-old — cleaning the boy up afterward with holy water.

One boy was made to act out the crucifixion in the nude while eager priests photographed him. Some boys were given gold crosses to wear that identified them to other priests as victims.

In large part, these crimes were committed with impunity. The predator club within the church hierarchy covered them up, and any resulting law suits were settled quietly, without public disclosure. Priests were transferred to other parishes, where they could resume their behavior.

Last month, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned his post in Washington, D.C., amid allegations that he molested young seminarians and a teenage altar boy. He is the first cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church to resign because of such allegations. Instead of sitting in a prison cell where he belongs, he will be allowed to live out his life in some sort of Catholic retreat home where he can contemplate his sins. Hopefully he won’t be provided with a laptop computer. 

The Diocese of Allentown is among those named in the Pennsylvania AG’s report. John Barres, the current bishop of Rockville Centre, served as bishop in Allentown from 2009 to 2016 and the report mentions him by name in that role. 

It lists crimes committed by the priests of this diocese and states: “The evidence also showed that diocese administrators, including the bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and that priests were regularly placed in ministry after the diocese was on notice that a complaint of child sex abuse had been made. This conduct was enabling to offenders and endangered the welfare of children.”

In an interview with Newsday last Wednesday, Bishop Barres and his spokesman disputed the report’s accuracy, citing as “misleading” its contention that Barres personally recommended to the Vatican that one priest with complaints against him be allowed to remain in retirement and not be removed. 

Regarding complaints against another priest in the Allentown diocese, the grand jury report states: “The Diocese elected to rely [on the priest’s word] rather than the word of the victims and the determination of law enforcement. No attempts were made to remove [the priest] from ministry. He was granted retirement, resides in Boca Raton, Florida, and assists with a local parish.”

In response to Bishop Barres’ comment to Newsday that the AG’s report contained “errors,” a spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general said this: “We stand fully behind the Grand Jury’s report, unanimously approved by 23 Pennsylvanians, cataloguing decades of sexual abuse by priests and institutional cover up by senior church leaders …”

During services on Sunday, priests in parishes across the Diocese of Rockville Centre read all or part of a statement from Bishop Barres in which he — predictably — decried the horrible abuse, saying it’s a “terrible sin.” It’s a “crime.” He went on to say the grand jury report was “materially incorrect” in its descriptions of some of his actions. The statement sounded like it was written by an attorney. If Bishop Barres feels the Pennsylvania AG has misrepresented his actions, what he should do is volunteer to be interviewed by state investigators under oath and penalty of perjury. 

Supporters of the shuttered Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead know Bishop Barres as the man who called for its closing, informing parents with a series of robocalls to their homes. Many Mercy parents, including some who had generously donated thousands of dollars to the school over many years, said he showed nothing but contempt for them.

Now the bishop has the Pennsylvania grand jury report to add to his legacy.

There is no end in sight to the wreckage that the abuse scandal has made of the Roman Catholic Church, which, as the AG’s report confirms once again, has been a comfortable home for legions of men who sexually abused children.

Pope Francis will see his historic papacy ruined by the continued scandal. So be it. The Irish Times editorialized in the wake of the AG’s report that the pope’s record on protecting children “has been a dismal failure.” Irish Catholics have fled the church in droves in recent years. The fault lies with the church itself.

The head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops promised there would be change, with new review bodies and “substantial leadership by the laity.” Don’t hold your breath. If the laity is going to find its spine and demand change, it should first halt all contributions to the church. Maybe bankruptcy would hasten fundamental change. 

The time is long past for a through cleansing of a broken, medieval institution. Any bishop who supervised priests in the Pennsylvania dioceses named in the AG’s report should be summarily fired. Catholics should be deaf to any more excuses. Any priests named in the report as offenders should, if the law allows, be brought up on charges. Any priests who knew about the abuse and looked away should be removed. Nor should congregations have to pay for their salaries and pensions.

But then, with a priest shortage in many places in America, churches would be forced to close. The Catholic church would have only itself to blame for this outcome.

There will be more scandals, as sex abuse hotlines are lighting up in many places in the wake of the Pennsylvania report. Then what?

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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