HARRISBURG, Pa. — A landmark grand jury report on clergy abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania detailed how priests often used religious rituals, symbols of the faith and the threat of eternity in hell to groom, molest and rape children.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called it the “weaponization of faith.”
Some of the examples cited in the report, released Tuesday, of how over 300 “predator priests,” dating back to the 1940s, used the children’s own religious faith and trust in them as religious leaders to victimize and silence them:
CONFESSION, AND CROSSES
One priest tied up a victim with rope in the confessional in a “praying position.” When the victim refused to perform sex, the angered priest used a 7-inch crucifix to sexually assault him.
Another victim said a priest used a metal cross to beat him.
At a parish rectory, four priests made a boy strip and pose as Jesus on the cross while they took photos.
“He stated that all of them giggled and stated that the pictures would be used as a reference for new religious statues for the parishes,” the grand jury wrote. Two of those priests later did jail time for sexually assaulting two altar boys.
One priest told a boy he was fondling that it was OK because the priest was “an instrument of God.”
Another was quoted as telling altar boys they should serve naked beneath their cassocks “because God did not want any man-made clothes to be worn next to their skin during Mass,” the jury wrote.
When a bishop asked the Vatican to remove a priest who used physical force and threats to abuse children, the bishop noted the priest “invoked the name of God to justify his actions against his victims while using their faith and the priesthood to manipulate them and secure their silence.” Parishioners were never told why he was removed in 2006.
HEAVEN AND DAMNATION
Threats of eternal damnation were not uncommon, the grand jury found.
Priests told children they would “go to hell” if they told anyone what happened and “nobody would believe a lying child over a man of God’s word.”
In one church, a priest told a boy who confided he had been gang-raped as a 7-year-old that he had to provide sex to get to heaven. He would then be molested for three years before the priest was transferred.
PRIVACY OF THE CHURCH
Predator priests used any opportunity they could to molest children while they had them alone, taking advantage of the privacy of church facilities.
Several priests used hypnosis during counseling sessions to manipulate their victims.
Helping a priest grade papers in his rectory somehow became a session of nude weightlifting.
One boy was abused when he went to collect his report card from school.
REACTION TO THE FINDINGS
“Predators in every diocese weaponized the Catholic faith and used it as a tool of their abuse,” the attorney general said.
While expressing sorrow over what happened, church leaders said most of the offenses occurred sometime in the past, and note that major reforms were adopted starting in 2002 to safeguard children.
Terence McKiernan, president of the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, said the ritualization of abuse was a fundamental part of how children were sexually exploited.
“Even when the Catholic rituals and doctrines are not specifically mobilized by the priest, they are in play,” he said.
The grand jurors pointedly wrote that the investigation was not an attack on the faith, noting many are Catholics themselves.
“People of all faiths and of no faith want their children to be safe,” the grand jurors wrote. “But we were presented with a conspicuous concentration of child sex abuse cases that have come from the church.”
OUTCOME OF INVESTIGATION
Because of time limits on the prosecution of old cases, only two of the priests have been charged with crimes as a result of the grand jury investigation, though a number were prosecuted in years past. Over 100 have died, and many others have retired.
Shapiro said the investigation is continuing. His office got more than 150 calls and emails within a day of the report’s release, from other people with stories of abuse.