States Follow Pennsylvania in Investigating Dioceses

by Jack Long


A Grand Jury report in Pennsylvania exposed more than three hundred sexually abusive priests, who abused upwards of one thousand children. Following that example, the attorneys general of Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York have all started their own inquiries into the dioceses in their states, with varying degrees of severity.

The Grand Jury report was ordered by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight dioceses: Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton. After a brief introduction, the Grand Jury summarized the evidence they found that priests in each of the six dioceses had molested minors and that Diocesan administrators who knew about this abuse allowed abusers to continue active ministry.


Over a thousand pages of the report are taken up by an appendix of all the sexually abusive priests the Grand Jury could find evidence of. For example, Father Ernest Paone continued to serve in parishes and high schools from 1957 until his resignation in 2003 despite nearly being arrested (another priest interceded on his behalf and stopped the arrest) in 1962 for “molesting young boys of the parish.” Paone would be reassigned to five different parishes in his first decade of ministry and remained in good standing under four different bishops despite complaints of sexual abuse made in 1964, 1994, and 2002. Paone was dead by the time of the Grand Jury’s report. Even if he was alive, the statute of limitations had passed, and so there would be no legal course to take against him.


The report noted that bishops and dioceses began to be slightly more receptive to inquiry after 2002’s Spotlight expose, but the Grand Jury insisted that leaders in the Church needed to respond to pressure to remove dangerous members of the clergy. As the report puts it, “It's all about the bishops. If diocesan bishops respond to these external pressures, then real change is possible.”


Beyond that, the Grand Jury made four recommendations for what to do to protect children from sexual violence. First, eliminate the statute of limitations for sexually abusing children, following the example of states like New York and Maryland, in the hope that abusers would be deterred from abusing children if there was no hope for immunity. Second, set up a civil window where survivors past the deadline to sue for damages would get have a two year to do so. Third, clarify penalties so those who fail to report abuse know to them can be prosecuted even if abuser is not preying on the same child multiple times. Fourth, restrict or ban entirely non-disclosure agreements in settlements regarding clerical sexual abuse so that the survivors cannot be bound not to report the crimes committed against them.


Five states so far have followed up Pennsylvania’s report by announcing their own investigations with varying degrees of intensity. Most notably, the attorney general of New York, Barbara Underwood, subpoenaed each of the Catholic dioceses as reported in the New York Times. The attorney general of New Jersey similarly started a task force to investigate clerical sex abuse and review whether the dioceses of that state have complied with agreements made with the state government in 2002. The Nebraska attorney general requested access to the past forty years of the archives of Nebraska’s dioceses just the Archdiocese of St. Louis agreed to an independent inquiry by the Attorney General’s Office of Missouri into the Archdiocese’s role in the clerical sex abuse crisis. The attorneys general of Illinois and New Mexico gave less forceful declarations, announcing their intention to meet with the bishops of their states and requesting a full accounting of the relationship between the priests of their states and those listed in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.


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