The Pennsylvania grand jury report released last month that documented decades of abuse and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church “pulled the cover off” a scandal first revealed 16 years ago, survivors of clergy sex abuse and longtime activists say.
The last time there was this much attention to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was in 2002, when the Boston Globe published its explosive investigative series. The newspaper’s work was dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.” Reports of abuses in years since have continued to rock the church globally despite repeated promises of reforms by officials.
But Tim Lennon, president of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which for decades has pressured Catholic Church officials and helped expose clergy sex abuse cases, is among those who see the Pennsylvania report as a game changer.
“There is no going back,” said Lennon, of Tuscon, Ariz. “We see in Pennsylvania that they pulled the cover off this cesspool. People have a better idea and are outraged. You can’t hide it, you can’t say it’s just a local thing, you can’t say it’s just in the past.”
More victims are coming forward to tell their stories and to try to hold priests accountable, bolstered in part by the #MeToo movement, Lennon and other advocates say. Lennon said SNAP leaders have been inundated with phone calls from abuse survivors telling their stories for the first time and supporters asking how they can help.
What hasn’t changed is the response by Catholic officials, said Barbara Dorris, former outreach director for SNAP, who like Lennon was abused by a priest as a child.
“I think they do a better job of public relations, but I don’t feel like children are much safer than they ever were,” she said.
David Clohessy, who helped lead SNAP for 30 years, said the hierarchical nature of the church prevents it from enacting real change.
“The remedy must come from outside the church,” he said. “No institution can police itself, especially not a rigid, ancient, secretive, all-male monarchy with this kind of a track record.”
Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis, was abused by a priest in Jefferson City in his teenage years.
SNAP has renewed calls for a federal investigation into clergy sexual abuse nationwide and urged each state attorney general to launch grand-jury investigations like Pennsylvania’s.
Missouri was the first state to publicly announce such an inquiry, with St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson promising Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office “unfettered” access to review archdiocese records on allegations of abuse.
Hawley, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate this year, said that while prosecuting and subpoena authority rests with local law enforcement, his office would investigate alleged crimes, publish a public report and refer credible cases to local prosecutors.
Lennon is dismissive of Hawley’s investigation. “There has to be an independent grand jury that has subpoena power and the power to compel testimony under oath,” he said. “Anything less than that is a sham and a whitewash.”
Clohessy said Hawley needs to use his public position to urge victims, witnesses and whistle blowers to come forward.
“We can talk on my porch and I can tell you that this is the cleanest house in the world but then if you come inside ... especially if I have a history of health department violations and hundreds of people telling you I live in a pigsty, what’s the use?” he said.
Sandra Price, executive director of the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, understands why activists may not trust church officials, but she said those officials are doing their best to be transparent.
Price said the distrust is in part due to church officials not making a concerted effort to address the issue publicly.
“We’re trying to be more open and transparent and trying to talk to more people about it,” Price said.
She cites a “very extensive” program by the archdiocese to safeguard children and prevent abuse, with measures including training more than 100,000 clergy, staff and parents on how to recognize warning signs and report abuse, conducting and reviewing background checks, and prohibiting adults from working alone with children.
A consulting firm audits the archdiocese each year and sends representatives to interview church officials on site and look through documents every three years, Price said. The last year an on-site audit was conducted was in 2016.
The archdiocese also set up a review board of lay Catholics with professional expertise in law enforcement, psychiatry and treating sexual abuse victims to advise officials.
As to Hawley’s review, Price urges a wait-and-see attitude.
“At the end of the day people need to give the attorney general’s office the opportunity to do the investigation and see what the results are before there is all this criticism,” she said.
‘Name the names’
Activists say they have been patient for years amid promises of reforms that they are still awaiting.
Clohessy pointed out that just last week the Archdiocese of St. Louis announced that a retired priest was suspended after he was allegedly discovered viewing child pornography. Officials contacted the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline and police, who seized the priest’s computer. He has not been charged.
Clohessy said the archdiocese should have identified that priest as well as others accused of abuse.
“They wouldn’t name him, wouldn’t even name the municipality, despite years and years of pledges of transparency,” he said. “How do they justify that?”
The archdiocese has twice been ordered by Missouri courts to produce two decades worth of internal documents on sexual abuse allegations as part of two civil suits alleging sexual abuse by priests.
Court-ordered seals kept the documents secret but the public was made aware that 115 priests and other church employees had sexual abuse allegations lodged against them over a 20-year period ending in 2003.
The majority of the priests on the list remain unnamed, said Dorris, of St. Louis.
“If the archdiocese is going to be honest, a good gesture of good faith would be to name the names,” Dorris said. “We have victims who have gag orders who can’t talk about their own lives. Remove these gag orders.”
Price said the archdiocese typically does not identify living priests accused of abuse unless the allegations are substantiated or priests are formally charged.
“We also have to have respect for the legal process in this country, which is that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
Price said the name of the priest involved in the incident last week will be released “as soon as we know charges are going to be filed.”
Beyond the investigations into the church, activists want officials to take other action, such as ending statutes of limitation on the prosecution of sex crimes.
Most victims don’t come forward for many years because of emotional trauma, health problems and social pressures, Dorris said. She thinks the church could show that it favors justice in abuse cases by joining activists in their quest.
“To me, if (church officials) truly believe what they’re saying, then they should be standing with us saying ‘Yes, abolish the statute of limitations,’” she said.
Clohessy said states also need stronger penalties for failing to report abuse.
“Behind every child predator is a colleague or supervisor who at best stayed silent and who at worst enabled the abuse,” he said.
Dorris said the Pennsylvania investigation, one of the largest and broadest into clergy sex crimes in recent years, came at a crucial time.
“As horrible as the grand jury report was, I think it inspired people to go at it again, to go to their local attorney generals and say ‘Hey, it was here, too, let’s investigate,’” she said. “It’s given them encouragement not to give up, that truth can come out and people can be held accountable.”