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What's missing from that Pennsylvania grand-jury report

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 14, 2016

For anyone who has been following the sex-abuse scandal in the American Catholic Church, the Pennsylvania grand-jury report on the failures of the Altoona diocese follows a depressingly familiar pattern. There are the priests who molest adolescents (virtually always boys), the treatment centers that give the predators clean bills of health, enabling them to find more prey. But in the whole sad 145-page report (which is embedded in this Post-Gazette report) there are also some remarkable new features:

  • Appeals to emotions. A grand jury’s proper function is to determine whether or not there is adequate evidence to justify criminal charges. In this case the grand jury decided that there was not, because the statute of limitations bars prosecution of crimes from the distant past. But this report is not a dispassionate, factual document; it is clearly written with a goal of rousing public outrage. The pages are laced with moral (as opposed to legal) judgments, and the prose occasionally turns purple. “A man not fit to be around a child was tasked to tend their souls,” the grand jury laments. And later: “These men wrote their legacy in the tears of children.” That sort of language might be appropriate for a newspaper editorial; it is not for a grand-jury report.
  • Self-congratulation. The grand jury proudly announces that it “learned” that priests were placed on “sick leave” to camouflage the fact that they were being investigated and/or treated for sexual misconduct. That’s not exactly ground-breaking detective work. Those of us who were following this story “learned” that ruse at least a dozen years ago, and now you can “learn” the same thing by spending a couple of hours at the local movie theater and watching Spotlight.
  • Selective outrage. Again and again the report denounces bishops for failing to alert law-enforcement officials to complaints of sexual abuse. But on those occasions when police and prosecutors were informed (see p. 51 and p. 57 for a few examples), they did nothing. If it was appalling that Church officials failed to protect children—and it was—wasn’t it equally appalling that law-enforcement officials were negligent as well?
  • Ignoring the 'professionals.' And speaking of “treatment” for sexual misconduct, the grand jury asserts that the role of the centers to which troubled priests were assigned was to “provide cover” for the bishops who wanted to keep them in active ministry. That’s a very harsh judgment of the centers—although, given the track record, it seems an accurate one. Yet the report goes no further, remaining silent about the disastrously bad judgments those centers made, advising bishops that priests could be safely returned to parish work. If the bishops should be criticized for negligence (and they should), what about the professional therapists who gave them so much bad advice?

The Pennsylvania grand jury saw several aspects of the problem, but focused exclusively on one. At this late date, everyone knows that American Catholics mishandled the scandal. Especially since this report exposed only the failures of two retired bishops (one of whom is deceased), it adds very little to our grasp of the problem. A few probing questions about the failures of the police, the prosecutors, and the treatment centers might have advanced our understanding. The grand jury dropped the ball.

One final note: This grand-jury report recalls an incident that could be classified as comic relief, if it were not such a craven example of a bishop’s refusal to accept personal responsibility. When asked whether he was the former Bishop of Altoona, Bishop Joseph Adamec cited his 5th-amendment rights, refusing to answer that question or any other.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: FredC - Mar. 16, 2016 12:02 PM ET USA

    The professionals were giving the same advice to all institutions -- that they had "cured" the offenders, who could return to their positions. Why haven't the professionals been sued?