HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a damning grand jury report Tuesday that details 70 years of sexual abuse and cover-ups in six of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses.
Complied over the course of 18 months, the 1,356-page doorstopper describes allegations concerning more than 300 priests and thousands of minor and adult-aged victims located in Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg and Scranton.
“There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church,” the report begins. “But never on this scale. For many of us those earlier stories happened someplace else. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
Published with redactions from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the report notably faults Cardinal Donald Wuerl for playing a role in the concealment of clergy sexual abuse.
Ranking as one of the highest-profile cardinals in the United States, Wuerl now leads the Washington archdiocese but for years served as the longtime bishop of Pittsburgh.
Wuerl denied the findings in a statement Tuesday, saying that said he “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro unpacked the report in a Facebook livestream this afternoon.
“The cover-up was sophisticated,” he said. “And all the while, shockingly, church leadership kept records of the abuse and the cover-up. These documents, from the dioceses’ own ‘Secret Archives,’ formed the backbone of this investigation,” he said at a news conference in Harrisburg.”
According to court records precipitating over the report’s release, investigations found more than 300 “predator priests” in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Scranton, Erie and Greensburg dioceses, many of whom, thus far, have had their actions protected by church leaders. Redactions in the report will protect the identities of accused parties who have disputed the report’s findings and filed legal challenges.
Several dioceses released the names earlier this week of clergy members accused of sexual misconduct with children. Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Harrisburg Diocese on Wednesday identified 71 priests accused of molesting children, with orders to remove the names of all accused bishops since 1947 from any diocesan property.
In a statement Friday, Cardinal Wuerl noted that there are priests named in the report still in the Pittsburgh ministry because the allegations against them were unsubstantiated.
“Thirty two priests from the Diocese of Pittsburgh were referenced in the excerpts of the Grand Jury report I was allowed to review,” Wuerl said. “The diocese investigated all allegations of child sexual abuse during my tenure there and admitted or substantiated allegations of child sexual abuses resulted in appropriate action including the removal of the priest from the ministry.”
As a result of this investigation, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Greensburg, John Thomas Sweeney, pleaded guilty July 31 to committing a sexual assault against a 10-year-old boy, who wished to only be identified by his first name, Josh.
“Josh is a hero to come forward to tell his difficult truth about Sweeney because of his concern that other children could be harmed if Sweeney were not held accountable,” Attorney General Shapiro said in a statement after the hearing. “Once a victim finds the courage to come forward, law enforcement should take action.”
The release of Pennsylvania’s grand jury report follows the July resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former D.C. archbishop accused of sexually abusing minors and adults within his congregation. This report is expected to further polarize the church’s positions on homosexuality and celibacy and trigger a debate about whether statutes of limitations should be expanded.
“I hope that it sparks a conversation about the statute of limitations reform,” said Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, a nonprofit that tracks sexual abuse cases in the Catholic church. “I also think that a conversation about the names [of all of those accused] is a really important part of this.”
McKiernan noted that their database of sexual abusers within the church is more than 2000 names short because many accusers have petitioned to have their names withheld.