Pennsylvania has become the epicenter of renewed outrage over alleged sexual abuse by catholic priests across the country. David Poulson, a former Pennsylvania priest, was sentenced last week to 14 years in prison for his abuse of an altar boy and the attempted abuse of another boy. Poulson may be one of only a few that are actually brought to justice.
A Pennsylvania grand jury released a 1356 page report in August of last year that found credible allegations against 300 predator priests that victimized at least 1,000 children. The most damning part of the report was revelations of efforts by the catholic church to cover up the abuse and protect priests known to be predators. The revelations forced Cardinal Donald Wuerl to resign as archbishop of Washington, D.C. after he acknowledged that he had known about allegations against his predecessor, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Wuerl was the bishop of Pittsburg from 1988 to 2006 and was accused by the grand jury of reassigning priests accused of abuse without reporting their crimes to authorities.
The allegations are horrendous and the cover ups make them much worse. For instance in the Diocese of Harrisburg a priest reportedly abused five sisters in a single family. The diocese was apparently unwilling to act until the priest’s collection of the girls’ urine, pubic hair, and menstrual blood was found. Another priest allegedly raped a seven year old girl while visiting her in the hospital after her tonsils were removed.
One particular case showed the church’s utter indifference to priests that were serial abusers. Father Earnest Paone was ordained in 1957 and was reassigned five times in his first nine years as a priest, each time due to complaints of sexual abuse of young boys. He then ended up in California where the Diocese of Pittsburgh seemingly stopped keeping tabs on him. Paone did not have a report filed against him until 1994 when the sister of a victim who was abused in the 1960s came forward. While Wuerl, who was now Bishop of Pittsburgh, sent Paone to St. Lukes for an evaluation, Paone was allowed to continue his ministry in California. Paone stayed in San Diego until 2002 when an article in the Boston Globe pressured the diocese to place him on leave. Paone later tendered his resignation to Wuerl in 2003 after multiple new allegations came to light.
Unfortunately, the majority of the allegations in the report are too old for prosecution. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Lee Ciccarelli says that while the statute of limitations is rather long in the state for sex crimes, most of the allegations in the report are still well past the statute of limitations. Ciccarelli says that the statute for rape of a minor at most lasts until the minor turns 50 years old, after that date charges can no longer be filed.
While the victims deserve substantially more justice, the report at the very least provides some validation for all the people injured by the church. Meanwhile the catholic church is in turmoil, trust in the church is down to 31% according to a Gallup poll, and the Pope has called for a summit next month of prominent bishops to discuss preventing future sexual abuse by the clergy.