Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette

It takes fortitude to read the Grand Jury report on child sex abuse in six Catholic dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania. Strong stomachs will be enraged; weaklings will need a pack of vomit bags. Words like “rape”, “child pornography”, “oral sex”, and “sado-masochistic rituals” tend to evoke such responses in decent people.

After a two-year investigation, the grand jury found that there were “credible allegations” against 301 Catholic priests who had preyed on children while serving in active ministry. The number of victims is believed to be at least one thousand, but the grand jury thought that it could be much higher.

The report only dealt with six of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses: Erie, Allentown, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. The other two, Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, were covered in previous reports.

Even worse, the report also claims that the Church’s hierarchy consistently covered up these crimes. “Pennsylvanians can finally learn the extent of sexual abuse in these dioceses,” said Attorney-General Josh Shapiro. “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 report has done immense damage. Many people must be feeling, to paraphrase the epigram of a French writer, “And with the guts of the last priest let's strangle the neck of the last bishop.”

If only half, if only a tenth, of these stories are true, they would be enough to justify root and branch reform of how sexual abuse is handled by the Church.

But there is a problem with the report. Its 884 pages of lurid stories cry to heaven for justice, but how is that to happen unless the filth is sifted to find patterns of behaviour? What can’t be measured can’t be managed. Unfortunately, the Grand Jury has written a novel, not a professional report. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it has whipped up the simmering indignation of Pennsylvanians into a firestorm. One columnist concluded that “It is time to face the horrible truth: The Catholic church is a paedophile ring …  Like a criminal syndicate, it is time for the Church to be broken apart and cleaned out.” This is an inflammatory overreaction which no serious politician will accept. For real change, Pennsylvania needs cool facts, not hysteria.

In this respect, Australia’s recent investigation of the same topic brought to light similar horror tales of predatory priests and negligent bishops. But they were presented in a way which makes it easier for the government to demand practical change and for the Church to respond accordingly. The report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse would be instructive reading for Mr Shapiro. It is based on interviews with 1,302 witnesses and 1.2 million pages of documents. Its 17 volumes cover more ground than the Grand Jury’s report, but they are also far better organised. From the lurid data it draws useful information.

To begin with, the authors of the Australian report were careful to use the term “alleged perpetrator” to describe people accused of crimes, instead of the grand jury’s preferred word, “offender”. Terminology is important. With decades separating the alleged offense from the report, there is room for error on the part of witnesses.

The Australian report also categorised the “alleged perpetrators” as priests, religious brothers, seminarians, laymen, and so on. The grand jury report makes no effort to do this. In fact, the figures seem to have been fiddled to ensure that the headline number of “priests” exceeded 300. Although the Attorney General said that 301 of them were involved, a handful each of religious brothers and seminarians are included. Their crimes are no less heinous, but it is important to know how many priests were involved.

An essential statistic is what the Australian report described as “the proportion of non-ordained religious [ie, religious brothers] and priests who were alleged offenders”. In other words, what percentage of priests had been accused of sexual abuse? In the period 1950 to 2010, the answer was 7.0% for all Australian priests. The report analysed the figures for each diocese, as well, with the figure ranging from 15.1% to 2.4%. None of this fine detail is in the grand jury report.

Digging further, the Australian report lists the “first alleged incident rates of non-ordained religious and priest who ministered from 1950-2010, by decade”. This gives an idea of when men started to abuse children. For all diocesan Catholic priests, this figure was 2.4% in the 1950s, rising to 3.2% in the 1960s and declining to 0.1% in the 2000s. In other words, most of the alleged perpetrators were active 60 or 70 years ago and today the situation may have changed radically. This seems to be the pattern in Pennsylvania as well, but it is impossible to confirm it from the grand jury report.

In fact, to reach the figure of 301 priests, the grand jury report includes one priest who was born in 1869, whose alleged offense occurred in the 1940s and was reported in 2006, more than a century after his ordination. A number of the offenses occurred in the 1940s and would all but impossible to verify now. It’s crucial to understand whether the incidence of abuse is rising or falling. Otherwise a solution for the crisis of the 1960s and 1970s will be imposed on the Church in 2020.

A related Australian statistic is “the proportion of priests who were subject to an allegation of abuse within a given decade”. For diocesan priests, this was 2.9% in the 1950s, rising to 4.5% in the 1960s and 4.0% in the 1970s, before falling to 0.2% in the 2000s. This is a key figure and the Grand Jury does Catholic priests a grave injustice by failing to produce it. The overwhelming majority of priests are honourable and self-sacrificing men who are disgusted by the crimes of their colleagues. Many readers would conclude, after reading the Grand Jury report, that they are all part of a paedophile ring. This is not just absurd; it is terribly unjust.  

Pope Francis is on the side of the victims, according to a statement from Vatican spokesman Greg Burke. The abuses described by the Grand Jury, “are criminal and morally reprehensible. Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith.” The Church, the statement declared, “must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

Amen to that. But learning lessons and demanding accountability require facts, not just emotions. Attorney General Shapiro has more homework to do.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet