What the latest investigations into Catholic Church sex abuse mean

The nearly 900-page report landed like a grenade when Josh Shapiro, then the attorney general of Pennsylvania, delivered it on a stage in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, five years ago. It detailed widespread sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church throughout Pennsylvania, and a “sophisticated” cover-up by senior church officials. Victims of abuse and their families, sometimes visibly weeping, joined Shapiro on the stage.

More than 300 priests were found to have abused children, at least 1,000 of them, over the course of seven decades. The report reverberated at the highest levels of the church, with the Vatican expressing “shame and sorrow” over the findings. And it reached the pews, too: A Gallup poll the next year found that more than one-third of Catholics in the United States were considering leaving the faith because of “recent news about sexual abuse of young people by priests.”


In the years since the Pennsylvania report was published, it has inspired some 20 other investigations into the Catholic Church by state attorneys general.

Now the results of those investigations are rolling out, refocusing attention on the sprawling abuse scandal, and in some cases providing fresh details. The attorney general of Illinois, Kwame Raoul, released a report in May that found more than 450 credibly accused child sex abusers in the Catholic Church in Illinois since 1950. Almost 2,000 children under 18 were victims.

These reports have not led to many criminal prosecutions: Many of the accused have died, or statutes of limitations have expired. But victims of clerical sexual abuse and their advocates say the reports have had a lasting impact in other ways. In some states, the reports have helped persuade legislators to extend time limits for victims to sue alleged abusers. And many victims say that such public and official acknowledgment of what happened is a welcome step.

“People talk about this being about sex, or a more academic analysis describes it as being about power,” said Terence McKiernan, the president of BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group. “But it’s also about information.”

Investigations have been concluded in seven states so far, and others are continuing, according to CHILD USAdvocacy, a group that supports stronger child abuse legislation.

The status of some of the investigations is unclear, frustrating activist groups. For example, the attorney general’s office in California invited victims to come forward with their stories in 2018, and later issued subpoenas to several Catholic dioceses. The office has not issued a public update on the investigation in years, and did not respond to a request for comment.

The sheer numbers in the state reports published so far are staggering: 163 perpetrators in Missouri, 97 in Florida, 188 in Kansas. There have been long lists of credibly accused priests and others in Catholic ministry, thousands of pages of victims’ narratives, and front-page headlines about the findings. Attorneys general have been photographed with towering stacks of documents, hoisting doorstop publications that are the product of years of research and interviews.

The number of accused priests and incidents of abuse peaked between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, and have declined significantly since then, according to a 2011 study commissioned by Catholic bishops and conducted by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Bishops in the United States adopted new protocols in the early 2000s to crack down on abuse, including a range of “zero tolerance” policies. Historically, the church withheld information about priests who were sexually abusive, often moving them from parish to parish without informing people in the pews. The reports have pushed many dioceses to publish or update their own lists of credibly accused clergy members.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, has disputed some aspects of the Illinois attorney general’s report, and questioned the way some of the data was presented. Even so, the archdiocese cooperated with the investigation, and Cupich issued a statement apologizing “to all who have been harmed by the failure to prevent and properly respond to child sexual abuse by clerics.”

Survivor groups have urged the Department of Justice to mount a federal investigation of the church. Other groups have tried to sue the church under federal and state racketeering laws, but those suits have fizzled because of high legal hurdles, including the need to prove “injury to business or property,” according to Stephen Rubino, a lawyer who tried the civil racketeering approach in a suit against the Archdiocese of Camden in the early 1990s. (That case was settled; Rubino later attempted another racketeering suit that was dismissed.)Many dioceses, facing waves of new lawsuits, have filed for bankruptcy.

For Shapiro, who is now the governor of Pennsylvania, the report became a signature achievement of his tenure as attorney general. On the campaign trail, he said, people frequently pulled him aside to thank him for the report, sometimes identifying themselves as victims of specific priests who were named in it.

“From a Pennsylvania perspective, the most significant thing is the way we gave a sense of justice to the victims here,” Shapiro said in an interview on Wednesday.

Mike McDonnell, 54, says he was abused by two priests in the Philadelphia area starting when he was 11.

He told no one at the time what had happened to him. He began drinking as a preteen, and later became addicted to drugs. His story was mentioned in a 2005 report by a grand jury on sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Philadelphia.

McDonnell said he probably would never have confronted the reality of the abuse, had he not seen the men who abused him named in the 2005 report. “Knowing myself, I would have continued to anesthetize myself and find other compartments in my soul to bury it,” he said.

At first, he said, he found it destabilizing to see his experience reflected in the report. He learned that he was not alone, and that leaders in the archdiocese of Philadelphia knew for years about the behavior of the two priests who abused him.

One of them, Francis Trauger, was convicted in 2020 of molesting two altar boys and was sentenced to 18 months to 36 months in prison. McDonnell, who now works for an advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse, was in the courtroom for the sentencing.

“Seeing that in print and in the public record is really monumental for those who have not had a voice,” McDonnell said. “That validation is really a kick-start to one’s healing journey.”

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