Surrounded by survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Pennsylvania’s attorney general Josh Shapiro on August 15, revealed the comprehensive findings of a statewide investigative grand jury that spent two years uncovering abuse of children by priests, and a systematic cover up spanning decades by senior church leaders in Pennsylvania and the Vatican.
The grand jury recommended reforming the criminal and civil statutes of limitations on sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, among other recommendations, and Attorney General Shapiro called on every Catholic bishop to support the reforms.
“Today, the most comprehensive report on child sexual abuse within the church ever produced in our country was released,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “Pennsylvanians can finally learn the extent of sexual abuse in these dioceses. For the first time, we can all begin to understand the systematic cover up by church leaders that followed. The abuse scarred every diocese. The cover up was sophisticated. The church protected the institution at all costs.”
The investigation captured widespread sexual abuse and institutional cover up across the entire state. Building on investigations of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and the Philadelphia Archdiocese by previous grand juries, the 40th Statewide Grand Jury’s investigation covered the other Dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton, giving a complete picture of pervasive abuse in dioceses across Pennsylvania. The grand jury found:
- 301 Catholic priests identified as predator priests who sexually abused children while serving in active ministry in the church.
- Detailed accounts of over 1,000 children victimized sexually by predator priests, with the grand jury noting it believed the real number of victims was in the “thousands.”
- Senior church officials, including bishops, monsignors and others, knew about the abuse committed by priests, but routinely covered it up to avoid scandal, criminal charges against priests, and monetary damages to the dioceses.
- Priests committed acts of sexual abuse upon children, and were routinely shuttled to other parishes – while parishioners were left unaware of sexual predators in their midst.
The 884-page grand jury report documents scores of sexual assaults and rapes of children by priests, and the institutional cover ups that followed by senior church officials, including:
- In the Diocese of Erie, (41 predator priests named), one priest, Father Chester Gawronski, fondled boys and told them he was giving them a “cancer check.” Gawronski provided the Diocese with a list of 41 “possible” victims. He confessed to multiple instances of sexual abuse. Yet from 1987 until 2002 – 15 years – Gawronski remained in active ministry, repeatedly reassigned to new parishes.
- In the Diocese of Allentown (37 predator priests named), one priest, Father Michael Lawrence rubbed a 12-year-old boy’s genitals so roughly the boy felt pain. “Please help me, I sexually molested a boy,” Lawrence admitted to a church official, who noted the confession in a confidential memo. Even after that admission, the Diocese ruled: “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim. Lawrence was left in ministry for years by three different Bishops.
- In the Diocese of Greensburg (20 predator priests named), one priest, Father Raymond Lukac, impregnated a 17-year-old, forged another pastor’s signature on a marriage certificate, then divorced the girl shortly after she gave birth. Despite that, Lukac remained in ministry while the Diocese sought a “benevolent bishop” in another state to take the predator, hiding him from justice.
- In the Diocese of Harrisburg (45 predator priests named), one priest, Father Joe Pease, sexually assaulted a boy repeatedly when the victim was between 13 and 15. Pease admitted to diocese officials to once finding the victim naked upstairs in the rectory – but called it “horse play”. In a secret memo, the Diocese noted: “At this point we are at an impasse—allegations and no admission” before cycling Pease through church-run treatment and allowing him back in active ministry for seven more years.
- In the Diocese of Pittsburgh (99 predator priests named), a group of at least four predator priests groomed and abused young boys. They used whips, violence and sadism in sexually assaulting their young victims. One boy, not yet 18, was forced to stand on a bed in a rectory, strip naked, and pose as Christ on the Cross for the priests. They took photos of their victim, adding them to a collection of child pornography which they produced and shared on church grounds.
- In the Diocese of Scranton (59 predator priests named), one priest, Thomas Skotek, raped a young girl, got her pregnant, and arranged an abortion. The Bishop, James Timlin, expressed his feelings in a letter: “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” The bishop’s letter was not sent to the girl. It was addressed to the rapist.
To read the full grand jury report: https://www.attorneygeneral.gov/report
The grand jury detailed that the cover ups by the church served a key purpose – the longer they covered up abuses, the less chance that law enforcement could prosecute predator priests because the statute of limitations would run out. “As a consequence of the cover up, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted,” the grand jury found. But not in every instance.
- In Greensburg, Father John Sweeney was charged by the Attorney General’s office with sexually abusing a 7-year-old boy named “Josh.” Sweeney pleaded guilty this month, is now an admitted sexual predator, and awaits sentencing.
- In Erie, Father David Poulson was charged with sexually assaulting a boy for eight years, starting when he was 8 years old. Poulson had the boy go to confession and admit his “sins”—to Poulson. Bishop Donald Trautman knew about and covered up the abuse.
In making recommendations for significant changes to Pennsylvania law governing child sex abuse, the grand jury stated: “We can’t charge most of the culprits. What we can do is tell our fellow citizens what happened, and try to get something done about it.”
Attorney General Shapiro strongly supported each reform recommended by the grand jury – and issued a challenge to every Pennsylvania bishop.
“Adopt and support each of these recommended reforms to Pennsylvania law – now,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “Stand up today and announce your support for these common-sense reforms. That’s the test that will determine whether things have really changed or if it will just be business as usual when the dust settles.”
The grand jury recommends these changes to Pennsylvania law:
- Eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children. Current law permits victims to come forward until age 50. The grand jury recommends eliminating the criminal statute of limitation entirely for such crimes.
- Create a “civil window” so older victims may now sue for damages. Current law gives child sex abuse victims 12 years to sue, once they turn 18. But victims in their 30s and older fall under a different law; they only get two years. The grand jury called that “unacceptable” and recommends a limited “window” offering victims a chance to be heard in court for an additional two years.
- Clarify penalties for a continuing failure to report child abuse. The grand jury recommends changing the abuse reporting law to clarify the duty to report abuse. The new language imposes a continuing obligation to report “while the person knows or has reasonable cause to believe the abuser is likely to commit additional acts of child abuse.”
- Specify that Civil Confidentiality Agreements do not cover communications with law enforcement. The grand jury wrote that the Church has used confidentiality agreements as a way to silence abuse victims from speaking publicly or cooperating with law enforcement. The grand jury proposes a new statute which clearly states that no past or present non-disclosure agreement prevents a victim from talking to police. Additionally, future agreements should state contact with police about criminal activity is permitted.
Attorney General Shapiro said his office pursues child sexual abuse – and institutional cover up – wherever his prosecutors find it. Since taking office in January 2017, Shapiro’s office has filed child sexual abuse charges against a western Pennsylvania police chief, a deputy county coroner, a pediatrician and many others. Last year, the Office of Attorney General secured convictions against the President of Penn State, Graham Spanier, and two other university officials for endangering the welfare of minors in covering up child sexual abuse committed by former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.
“Wherever we find child sexual abuse – in a government office, in a university, or in places of worship – we’re going to investigate it and protect victims from further harm,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “Today, after decades of enforced silence and institutional cover up, the voices of the victims of sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania are finally being heard. The time for institutions to place their own interests above protecting our children is over.”