The Slatest

Devastating Report of Abuse by Catholic Priests in Pennsylvania Finds More Than 1,000 Victims

Donald W. Wuerl shakes hands with disgraced Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick (R) in the interior of a cathedral, surrounded by other members of the clergy.
Now-Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl (left) shakes hands with disgraced Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick (right) at the end of a Mass for Wuerl’s installation as archbishop of Washington in June 2006. Wuerl has been accused of covering for accused clergymen. McCarrick has been accused of abusing multiple children over decades.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a gutting, 1,400-page report released Tuesday, a grand jury in Pennsylvania said internal documents show more than 1,000 people have credibly accused 300 Catholic priests in the state of sexual abuse. Many of those victims testified about the abuse and methodical cover-ups by the church over the past 70 years, in what is one of the most damning revelations of the Catholic sex abuse scandal that has played out in the U.S. over the past 15 years.

The report covered countless cases of rape and other sexual abuse that devastated the lives of children, junior priests, and young seminarians. In one case, the report says, five sisters in the same family—one an 18-month-old toddler—were all abused by the same priest; in another, a girl said she was raped in the hospital after having her tonsils removed; and in another, a priest impregnated a young girl and arranged for her to have an abortion. Priests sometimes shamed their victims after their abuse and compelled them to repent of sins, the report says.

The report also found that priests collaborated to produce and disseminate child pornography and even share victims with one another, as one victim named George, who said he was also forced to pose naked as Jesus Christ for a group of priests to photograph him, testified:

George recalled that each of these priests had a group of favored boys who they would take on trips. The boys received gifts; specifically, gold cross necklaces. George stated, “He [Zirwas] had told me that they, the priests, would give their boys, their altar boys or their favorite boys these crosses. So he gave me a big gold cross to wear.” The Grand Jury observed that these crosses served another purpose beyond the grooming of the victims: They were a visible designation that these children were victims of sexual abuse. They were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitized to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimization.

Many victims later wound up grappling with drug abuse and alcoholism or died later by suicide. The investigation concluded that there are likely thousands of more victims who have not come forward—and just from priests who worked in the six dioceses in the state covered in the report.

As with other Catholic Church abuse scandals, this investigation detailed the repeated and consistent ways church leaders covered up the allegations of abuse and moved accused abusers around to different dioceses, with false reasons for the priests’ transfers.

In one instance, after a fellow clergyman intervened on behalf of an accused priest in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, the district attorney at the time admitted he dropped his investigation because he wanted the church’s support for his political career. Several bishops in the following years vouched for the accused priest—including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who allowed the priest to resign in good standing in 2003 to collect his pension. Wuerl is now the archbishop of Washington. In other cases in the report, Wuerl stepped in to stop abusive priests, but at other times he transferred them back into parishes.

The former archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, was removed from office in June after being accused of assaulting a 16-year-old altar boy decades ago. Other allegations have since emerged. McCarrick was the highest-ranking Catholic official in the U.S. to ever be removed from office for allegations of child sexual abuse. Some Catholics are calling for an investigation into why McCarrick advanced as far as he did, despite warnings to superiors in Rome about the allegations.

These allegations will largely not lead to criminal convictions, as the state’s statutes of limitations have passed for many cases. In Pennsylvania, victims of child abuse lose the ability to file civil suits at age 30 and cannot file criminal charges after age 50. Victims’ groups and advocates, as well as the grand jury and attorney general, are now campaigning for an extension, or at least exemption, to the statute of limitations for child abuse.

Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops have promised more transparency and said recent measures have already made the church a safer place. Other bishops have denied widespread cover-ups by the church. The Vatican has not yet commented on the report.