American Catholics Reel after Sweeping Allegations of Clergy Child Sex Abuse

August 29, 2018
Pope Francis looks down

On August 14, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a sweeping, 1400-page report on clergy child sex abuse in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses.

Over the course of two years, the grand jury reviewed over 500,000 subpoenaed internal diocesan documents containing “credible allegations” of clergy sexual abuse of teenage and prepubescent youth—including babies as young as 18 months old.

In all, the grand jury found over 1,000 victims of sex abuse by clergy and named more than 300 offending priests since the mid-1950s. While the Pennsylvania statute of limitations prohibits most of the cases from being tried in a court of law, the grand jury found at least two cases that can be taken to court. Estimating that they were releasing the largest-scale report on child sex abuse within the Catholic Church, the grand jury nevertheless noted, “We don’t think we got them all.” Lamenting the number of victims that likely never came forward or whose complaints were not recorded by Pennsylvania dioceses, the grand jury wrote, “We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated.”

Within the report, the grand jury described what they found to be a series of practices within the six dioceses aimed at mitigating and burying instances of abuse by clergy. Calling the tactics “a playbook for concealing the truth,” the grand jury pointed to the hierarchy’s widespread use of euphemisms, shuffling of offending clergy to other parishes, and refusing to involve the police.

Pope Francis responded to the explosive report with an open letter acknowledging the “suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse.”

“Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient,” the pontiff wrote nearly a week after the report’s release. “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

Francis invited his readers to participate in “a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting” designed to “awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”

American Catholics met Francis’s letter with a variety of reactions. While some saw the letter as a good faith effort to oversee reform in one of the world’s largest religious hierarchies, others found the letter short on actionable items that would spur real change.

In a Los Angeles Times letter to the editor, a reader wrote, “The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church expressing ‘shame and sorrow’ over sexual abuse by priests is similar to the expression of ‘thoughts and prayers’ in response to mass killings. Significant actions are necessary, even if they will not erase the stain of the abuses that have occurred.”

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of, expressed her disappointment that the pope seemed to draw upon “recycled rhetoric.”

“Mere words at this point deepen the insult and the pain,” Doyle said in a statement.

Others expressed their feeling of helplessness to effect change in the Church due to its rigid hierarchy.

“This isn’t a democracy. We can’t call our representatives. There aren’t town halls with bishops,” Catholic Studies professor Susan Reynolds told The Atlantic. “This groundswell of rage—very righteous anger and rage on the part of lay people—comes from this place of…wanting to reclaim our rightful role in the Church.”

Some Catholics, on the other hand, saw the report as unfairly singling out the Church.

“I always feel like there’s a bigger attack on Catholics or Christians and faith,” 30-year-old practicing Catholic Rachel Bolonos told the New York Times. “This goes on in other areas—in schools or what not.”

Lay Catholics’ opinions on the clergy abuse crisis have further splintered in recent days due to allegations from a former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, that both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis knew about and declined to act against allegations of sexual misconduct by a cardinal and former archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Last week, Viganò published a letter claiming that Pope Francis knew Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick—who resigned at the end of July and was ordered by Pope Francis to a “life of prayer and penance”—had an alleged history of preying on minors and adult seminarians.

Viganò, described by some as an “unyielding conservative lion” who has gained popularity with powerful critics of Pope Francis, demanded Francis shed clarity on when he first heard rumors of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct and “acknowledge his mistakes.” The Washington Post reports that Viganò’s letter is the first instance in Church history of someone from within the Vatican hierarchy publicly accusing a pope of covering up clergy sex abuse.

American Catholic laity have largely split by political leaning. Conservatives that admire Viganò and share his critiques of Francis have found Viganò’s claims credible, while liberals balk at Viganò’s intimation that homosexuality in the priesthood is to blame for the sex abuse crisis and suspect Viganò’s motives for accusing Francis.

Nevertheless, Catholics of all political views and backgrounds have called for radical change within the Church. Some have called for all U.S. bishops to resign, following the example of Chilean bishops’ mass resignation in May after the revelation of their own widespread sex abuse scandal. Others have called for Pope Francis himself to resign.

Still others have decried American Catholics’ propensity to argue across the political aisle over a broad issue that they might otherwise tackle together. Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig tweeted today that the Church hierarchy’s tendency toward opacity might be to blame for the infighting.

While Catholic laity reels from the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report and subsequent accusations among Church leaders, the grand jury members ended the introduction to their report with a plea that the issue of clergy sex abuse not get lost in the shuffle.

“During our deliberations, one of the victims who had appeared before us tried to kill herself,” the grand jury wrote. “From her hospital bed, she asked for one thing: that we finish our work and tell the world what really happened.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Pope Francis. Photo by Republic of Korea, Flickr Creative Commons.