HARRISBURG (CBS/AP) — Pennsylvania officials have released a landmark grand jury report that identifies more than 300 “predator priests” who allegedly molested more than 1,000 children in six dioceses. The grand jury says it believes the “real number” of abused children might be “in the thousands” since some records were lost and victims were afraid to come forward.READ MORE: ABC Men Feeding Philadelphia Community Physically And Spiritually One Box At A Time
It also accuses church leaders of taking steps to cover up the abuse. The report emerged from one of the nation’s most exhaustive investigations of clergy sexual abuse.
“Today, the most comprehensive report on child sexual abuse within the church ever produced in our country was released,” said Attorney General Josh Shapiro said during a press conference. “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.”
Significantly, the report faulted Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former longtime bishop of Pittsburgh who now leads the Washington archdiocese, for what it said was his part in the concealment of clergy sexual abuse. Wuerl, one of the highest-profile cardinals in the United States, released a statement Tuesday that said he had “acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse.”
The grand jury scrutinized abuse allegations in dioceses that minister to more than half the state’s 3.2 million Catholics. Its report echoed the findings of many earlier church investigations around the country in its description of widespread sexual abuse by clergy and church officials’ concealment of it.
Most of the victims were boys, but girls were abused, too, the report said. The abuse ranged from groping and masturbation to anal, oral and vaginal rape.
“Church officials routinely and purposefully described the abuse as horseplay and wrestling and inappropriate conduct. It was none of those things. It was child sexual abuse, including rape,” Shapiro said.
The document comes at a time of renewed scrutiny and fresh scandal at the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church. Pope Francis stripped 88-year-old Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of his title and ordered him to a lifetime of prayer and penance amid allegations that McCarrick had for years sexually abused boys and had sexual misconduct with adult seminarians.
Wuerl has come under harsh criticism over his response to the McCarrick scandal, with some commentators questioning his claims of surprise and ignorance over allegations that McCarrick molested and harassed young seminarians.READ MORE: Camden County Health Officials Enlisting Bilingual Volunteers To Help Dispel COVID Vaccine Fears In Latino Community
Wuerl replaced McCarrick as Washington’s archbishop after McCarrick retired in 2006.
The Pennsylvania grand jury, convened by the state attorney general’s office in 2016, heard from dozens of witnesses and reviewed more than a half-million pages of internal documents from the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses.
Some clergy members say they are wrongfully accused and want to challenge the allegations. The state Supreme Court says they’ll consider their claims, but, for now, their identities will be concealed.
In the Diocese of Allentown, Father Michael Lawrence was accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy and allegedly went to a church official asking for help after confessing to sexually abusing the young boy. The report found the the diocese ruled that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim. Lawrence was left in the ministry for years by three different bishops.
“Past incidents of abuse contained in the Grand Jury Report are abhorrent and tragic. We apologize to everyone who has been hurt by the past actions of some members of the clergy. We know that these past actions have caused pain and mistrust for many people. The victims and survivors of abuse are in our prayers daily,” the Diocese of Allentown said in a statement.
In the Diocese of Greensburg, Father Raymond Lukac allegedly impregnated a 17-year-old girl, forged another pastor’s signature on a marriage certificate, and then divorced her shortly after she gave birth. Lukac remained in the ministry while the diocese sought a “benevolent bishop” in another state to take him.
The report found that in the Scranton diocese, a priest named Thomas Skotek allegedly raped a young girl, got her pregnant and arranged and abortion. In the Pittsburgh diocese, the report states that one boy was forced to strip naked and pose as Christ on the Cross for priests while taking photos of him that they added to a child porn collection that was shared on church grounds.
A couple of dioceses decided to strip the accused of their anonymity ahead of the report and released the names of clergy members who were accused of sexual misconduct. On Friday, the bishop of Pittsburgh’s diocese said a few priests named in the report are still in ministry because the diocese determined allegations against them were unsubstantiated.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was not part of this specific report but you may remember was the subject of grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011 leading to talk of a coverup arrest of Monsignor William Lynn.MORE NEWS: 'Really Good Step In The Right Direction' For Philadelphia Restaurants As Some COVID Restrictions Relaxed
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)