A damning report was issued Tuesday by a grand jury in Pennsylvania tasked with investigating allegations of child sexual abuse and cover-ups by Pennsylvania Catholic priests and diocesan officials.
The report investigated six of the eight Catholic dioceses in the state. (The other two diocese were previously investigated by grand juries.) The report’s introduction begins with strong words. “There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale.”
The grand jury, claiming to have investigated the largest known child sex abuse scandal in Catholicism to date, found “credible allegations” of abuse by more than 300 priests. It identified “over one thousand child victims,” but suspected that the real number of those abused by priests over decades “is in the thousands.” (The redacted report is available here.)
The New York Times reported that “the report catalogs horrific instances of abuse,” including instances of rape. The Times noted “(t)he Pennsylvania grand jury report comes as the sex abuse scandal in the church has reached a new stage, with calls to discipline bishops who sexually abused younger priests and seminarians, or who have covered up for abusive colleagues.” Currently, the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania prevents many victims from taking legal action decades after the fact.
The report appears to be the largest examination of the Catholic sex abuse scandal in the country. “No other state has seen more grand jury investigations of abuses in the church than Pennsylvania, where about one of every four residents is Catholic,” reported the Times.
Rachel Denhollander, an attorney and former gymnast who was the first to accuse Dr. Larry Nassar of sexually abusing gymnasts, reacted on Facebook with “grief and anger.” Denhollander has become an advocate for survivors of abuse after her own experience of abuse and a lack of care she received from her church. She predicted in her Facebook post that things in the Christian church will not change “until members of the community rise up and say ‘no more.’”
Another reaction came from fellow survivor of abuse Anne Marie Miller, a prominent Christian author and speaker. Miller accused her former youth pastor, Mark Aderholdt, of having a sexual relationship with her when she was 16 and he was 25. Aderholdt resigned from the South Carolina Baptist Convention earlier this year and was subsequently arrested last month for sexual assault of a child on the basis of Miller’s accusations, according to the Dallas Star-Telegram. Miller’s Facebook post on Tuesday lamented the Pennsylvania abuse and cover-up, calling it “evil.” She, like many victims, has called for clear accountability for clergy and church leaders. “Ask questions. Do your research. Report, report, report to law enforcement.”
Church Law & Tax senior editor and attorney Richard Hammar covers the top five reasons churches go to court each year. In 2017, child sexual abuse was the number one reason churches and religious organizations went to court. In 2016, “child sexual abuse” was briefly supplanted by “property disputes” as the top cause, giving Hammar hope that after decades of failing to adequately protect minors, churches were finally getting better in the area of child protection. After the 2017 numbers were tabulated and child sexual abuse again claimed the top percentage of church court cases, Hammar found the lack of progress “sickening.”
“After analyzing the 2016 data, I thought, Good. We’ve gone from 11.7 percent to 8.3 percent [of cases being related to child sexual abuse]. Something is happening out there. And then I tabulated the data for 2017,” he said. “We’re not doing the job I thought we were doing. I thought maybe we turned a corner and we’re going to see this risk drop. It’s not dropping.”
If there’s hope in the Christian environment, it lies in increased calls for transparency and a willingness to have abuse brought out in the open—with zero tolerance for credible cases. The Times noted that “abuse survivors and advocates say that in September they plan to begin a fresh campaign to press [Pennsylvania] lawmakers and Bishop Gainer [of Harrisburg] to drop their opposition” to removing the statute of limitations that keeps many of them from seeking legal recourse.
Last week, First Things published “An Open Letter from Young Catholics” that called for, among other things, “a new intolerance of clerical abuse and sexual sin, and public acts of penance by Catholic bishops.” Also last week, Willow Creek Community Church’s elders and lead pastors resigned over the handling of allegations of abuse against former head pastor Bill Hybels. A new era of transparency and intolerance for abuse and sexual misconduct in the church appears to be gaining ground. But that observation must be held alongside revelations like the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report.
The work of abuse prevention and response remains an ever-present one for the Christian church. It’s never too soon for church leaders to educate themselves on the risks and duties surrounding the issues of sexual abuse. But often, it can be too late.
Church Law & Tax has previously covered child sexual abuse prevention with its Reducing the Risk training program, mandatory child abuse reporting laws for church leaders, and how to create a church culture of accountability in the #MeToo era.
Samuel Ogles is associate editor and special project manager for Church Law & Tax.
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