Catholic leaders covered up child sex abuse by ‘predator priests’ for decades, grand jury says

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (NBC News) – A scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report released Tuesday reveals decades of child abuse allegations against more than 300 accused “predator priests” as well as claims that Roman Catholic Church leaders covered up the crimes and obstructed justice in order to avoid scandal.

More than 1,000 child victims were identifiable from the church’s own records, according to the report.

“We believe that the real number — of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward — is in the thousands,” the grand jury said.

“Today, Pennsylvanians can learn the extent of sexual abuse in the dioceses and for the first time we can begin to understand the systematic cover up by church leaders that followed,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference in Harrisburg on Tuesday, the deadline set by the state’s Supreme Court for the release of the 884-page report with some of the names of the accused clergy temporarily redacted.

“Let me be very clear — my office is not satisfied with the release of a redacted report,” he added. “Every redaction represents an incomplete story of abuse that deserves to be told.”

Among the most horrific findings in the grand jury report: 

  • A ring of predatory priests that allegedly manufactured child pornography on diocese property and used whips, violence and sadism on their victims.
  • That same group of priests gave boys they favored gold cross necklaces, which, the report states, “were a signal to other predators that the children … were optimal targets for further victimization.”
  • One priest allegedly abused five sisters in a single family despite prior abuse reports that were never acted on. The priest collected samples of the girls’ urine, pubic hair and menstrual blood, according to the report.
  • Lack of discipline for priests who admitted to abuse: A priest who confessed to raping of at least 15 boys, some as young as 7. A bishop later said that the priest was “a person of candor and sincerity” and complimented him “for the progress he has made” in controlling his “addiction.”
  • A priest who quit after years of child abuse complaints and asked for — and received — a reference letter for his next job — at Walt Disney World.

The report said that abuse complaints were kept in the church’s so-called secret archive and church officials worked to hide reports of the abuse, failed to discipline priests or report the allegations to law enforcement.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,” the report said.

Shapiro said the report showed a “systematic cover up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.”

“The abuse scarred every diocese, the cover-up was sophisticated,” he said.

The grand jury said in the report that it had uncovered a ring of predatory priests that manufactured child pornography on diocese property and used whips, violence and sadism on their victims.

The report, which was the result of a roughly two-year investigation, had remained under seal during pending court challenges from clergy. Clergy members had until last week to seek to have their names redacted from the long-anticipated report.

Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse within the church and their families were in attendance at the Tuesday news conference.

The investigation spans the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses. Some of the dioceses had already released the names of clergy members accused of child abuse ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court had agreed to consider claims from priests that the report is inaccurate and releasing it with identifying information would violate their constitutional rights and set oral arguments for the issue in September, according to Shapiro.

And at the end of last month, a priest with the Greensburg Diocese, the Rev. John Sweeney, pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a 10-year-old boy. Sweeney was the first priest convicted as a result of the grand jury, and a priest in Erie has charges pending, but the state’s statute of limitations for child abuse could prevent some prosecutions, especially with many of the allegations going back decades.

“As a consequence of the cover-up, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted,” the grand jury wrote in the report. “But that is not to say there are no more predators.”

The grand jury also gave a series of recommendations to stop abuse going forward.

The report called on the Pennsylvania legislature to “stop shielding child sexual predators” and eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children.

“We want future victims to know they will always have the force of the criminal law behind them, no matter how long they live,” the report said.

Other recommendations included a law that would let older victims sue the diocese for damage inflicted on their lives by the child abuse, improvements to the law for mandating reporting of abuse, a law saying no nondisclosure agreements can apply to criminal investigations, saying that the church had been using “quite a few confidentiality agreements” going back decades.

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