What’s New in the Grand Jury Report on Priest Abuse?

Clergy abuse in the Catholic Church is in the news yet again.

Posted Aug 19, 2018

With great fanfare and national front page news coverage, a Pennsylvania grand jury recently released their much anticipated report on August 14, 2018 detailing the horrific history and pattern of abuse and cover up by the Roman Catholic Church in six of the eight Pennsylvania dioceses during the past 70 years.  About 300 priests and 1,000 victims were counted during this time frame and the all-too-familiar pattern of bishops and other church leaders suppressing news when it came to their attention and then moving priests to other churches to minimize scandal.  The news came after the well-known and high ranking American Cardinal McCarrick was recently accused of sexually exploiting many Catholic seminarians as well as a teenage “nephew” for many years.

But what have we really learned with the release of this grand jury report? What’s new in it? The answer is surprisingly little. We have been well aware of this story in the Catholic Church for many years and it certainly came to public attention in 2002 with the now famous Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team report, which was recently made into the award-winning film Spotlight. Several major national and independent research studies conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 and 2011, funded in part by the Department of Justice, made this information well known. In fact, colleagues and I who have worked in this area for 30 plus years published a book in 1998, Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned, articulating these patterns of abuse with now confirmed and accurate estimates of the number of clerical sex offenders among us.

What really is new in the grand jury report is the fact that 8 percent of priests in Pennsylvania during the past 70 years had credible accusations of sexual abuse while the estimated national average during the same period of time is 4 percent.  Now, that’s news. As we learned about Boston in 2002, Pennsylvania was a clergy abuse hot spot, and perhaps the pattern of abuse and cover-up there was more extreme than in most of the rest of the country during the same time frame. 

At the end of the day, everyone wants to be sure that children and families are safe in the Catholic Church and in any institution that is entrusted with their care. After the now famous U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s 2002 Dallas Charter, policies and procedures within the Church have made it a safer environment for children, with lay review boards overseeing their efforts in all dioceses and within all religious orders. An independent audit system, conducted by a company unaffiliated with the church, ensures that these policies and procedures are followed very carefully with lay oversight. Other organizations that work with children such as the Boy Scouts, law enforcement, the U.S. Olympic committee, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and so forth have worked together with the Catholic Church to utilize best practices of child protection moving forward.

The stories coming out of Pennsylvania recently are a reminder that we need to do all that we can do to keep children and families safe when in the trusted care of Church or non-church institutions and that we all need to be hypervigilant in our efforts. Tragically, sex offenders can be found within any profession and institution and keeping them away from children must be our top priority. Best practices and policies are available to help and are now used in the Catholic Church and elsewhere. We must ensure that they are enforced wherever adults and children interact.

Copyright 2018, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP

References

Plante, T. G., & McChesney, K. (Eds.). (2011). Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO. ISBN: 978-0-313-39387-7.

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