This Sunday morning (5 August, 2018) our priest read a letter to the congration at Mass from the Very Reverend Ronald Gainer, Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The letter, giving the names of 71 male religious (priests, seminarians, deacons) accused of child molestation, has been widely reported in news media: see here for the pastoral letter, here for the press release, here for the list of accused religious, and here, here and here for online articles on this. The letter precedes the release (blocked heretofore by order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court) of a Grand Jury proceedings initiated by the Democratic Attorney-General, Josh Shapiro (but more of that below*). Newspapers have anticipated this Grand Jury report with, shall we say, great expectations:
“The state Supreme Court disclosed recently that the grand jury had identified more than 300 “predator priests” in six Pennsylvania dioceses, including Pittsburgh. Those dioceses minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics. The 900-page report could be made public within days.”
—AP, in Philly.Com, August 4.
Before going further let me say first that this post is not going to be a defense of priests who are child molesters. Nevertheless, it is a legal principle that a presumption of innocence is made until guilt is proved by trial or other legal action. (Please correct me Don, if this isn’t so.) And I am told by a lawyer friend that Grand Juries do not proceed this way; those named in accusations are not allowed to speak in their defense, have legal aid or confront accusers.
If one examines the list and puts the accused into categories, the story becomes much less impressive than the tagline “71 predator priests” might imply. Of those 71,
- 10 are accused of multiple acts of indecent behavior and are alive;
- 3 are accused of possessing child porn and are alive;
- 4 are accused of a single act of indecent behavior and are alive;
- 3 are accused of inappropriate behavior (kissing) or inappropriate communications and are alive;
- the remaining 51 either died after the accusations were made, were accused after they died, or were accused in other dioceses, but not in Harrisburg (the point being that there is no way to validate the truth of these accusations).
Let me also add that these accusations go back to 1947. There are currently (if I’ve counted correctly) 270 priests in the Harrisburg Diocese, including retired. If I assume an attrition and replacement rate of 5 per year (that’s conservative), that corresponds to about 600 priests serving during 1947-2017. So dividing (10+3+4+3) by 600 gives a percentage of about 3%, if one assumes that each of the accused was guilty. Is this percentage higher than it would be, say, in the Anglican Church, or amongst male teachers in the public schools?
To my knowledge, the Diocese—even before Bishop Gainer’s tenure—has been scrupulous in removing priests from duty when acknowledged acts of indecent behavior have been made. One priest, a Vicar in a neighboring parish, was removed from duty (and not put elsewhere in the Diocese) after a proven accusation of misbehavior in another diocese had been made.
I want to emphasize again that we want 0% of inappropriate behavior; we want our children to be safe. But we want them to be safe not only in our Churches, but in our schools and on the streets. I can tell horror stories of boys corrupted by a local basketball coach, and one remembers the Penn State football assistant coach. Let’s not make a blanket assumption that the priesthood has been totally corrupted because of headlines engendered by a political opportunist.
*Josh Shapiro is the second Democrat to hold the office of Attorney-General in Pennsylvania after a long line of Republicans (the first is awaiting jail after being convicted of malfeasance in office). The office is regarded as a stepping stone to the Governorship and Shapiro owes a debt to left-liberal organizations that helped put him in office. His letter to Pope Francis was published in our local paper today: he requested that the Pope intervene to help publicize the Grand Jury verdict. As my wife put it, “I wonder what those two ___ make of each other.”