The Catholic Church’s seven-point system for covering up abuse

Clouds over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Clouds over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Image: Reuters/Jason Cohn
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“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this.” So begins the scathing account (pdf) of a Pennsylvania grand jury after investigating 70 years of child sex abuse by more than 300 Catholic priests in six dioceses across the state. “We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated. This report is our only recourse,” the jurors write.

More than 1,000 offenses were uncovered, though many more are suspected to have occurred, they say. Most of these cases can’t be prosecuted now—only two have yielded criminal charges so far. The crimes were too ably covered up by the dioceses for too long—so the report is the only way of exposing the many church authorities involved in a criminal betrayal that went on for decades and left so many scarred.

“We are going to name their names and describe what they did—both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct because that’s what the victims deserve,” the jurors write.

They heard testimony from victims, witnesses, and church authorities, and reviewed thousands of internal church documents from every diocese in the state except Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown (which had been examined by previous grand juries). Most of the victims were abused as teenage and prepubescent boys, though girls were also subject to attacks. The youth were manipulated with alcohol, pornography, and power, made to masturbate for assailants, groped, and raped. Each case is slightly different but one unifying theme prevails, according to the report: “All of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.”

Church officials followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” the reports states. The patterns were similar enough that FBI analyses of the church’s responses yielded seven rules, basically, an institutional guide to covering up abuse. Here are seven principles the jurors note:

  1. Make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocese documents. Never say”rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”
  2. Don’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel. Instead, assign fellow clergy members to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.
  3. For an appearance of integrity, send priests for “evaluation” at church-run psychiatric treatment centers. Allow these experts to “diagnose” whether the priest was a pedophile, based largely on the priest’s “self-reports” and regardless of whether the priest had actually engaged in sexual contact with a child.
  4. When a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on “sick leave,” or suffering from”nervous exhaustion.” Or say nothing at all.
  5. Even if a priest is raping children, keep providing him housing and living expenses, although he may be using these resources to facilitate more sexual assaults.
  6. If a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.
  7. Finally, and above all, don’t tell the police. Child sexual abuse, even short of actual penetration, is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personnel matter, “in house.”

In response to the report, Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops issued a statement (paywall) calling for prayers for victims and the church. They promise more openness and said steps have been taken to make churches safer.

Still, some Catholic officials, such as Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh, denied that the church hid crimes, saying in a news conference reported by the New York Times (paywall), “There was no cover-up going on. I think that it’s important to be able to state that. We have over the course of the last 30 years, for sure, been transparent about everything that has in fact been transpiring.”

The bishop’s claim stands in stark contrast to accusations in the damning report, which says that men of God “hid it all.”