There is no greater pain than shame. I know. As a clerical-abuse survivor, I lost my innocence nearly a half-century ago. Filled with grace, a healing that took decades, I welcomed Peter Steinfels’s heartfelt, faith-filled, and thorough investigation of how the scandal, over seventy years, pierced six dioceses across Pennsylvania (“The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems,” January 25). Reading the entire report last August, soon after the news of Theodore McCarrick hit those in and out of the pews throughout the world—especially in my home Archdiocese of Newark—I identified with much of its horrid text. I realized, though, that exaggeration pervaded, but I knew that the graphic details would rule the day. Steinfels is right to point out that there were, without question, some fine and gifted church leaders who certainly acted like Simon of Cyrene. They, like him, did carry the cross with Jesus. But some did not.

How do we make any sense of a wounded Pennsylvania church? We must absorb the grand-jury report fully, as Steinfels has. As a victim, I give credit to men like Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, who confronted the situation and told the authorities, shedding forensic light on violation. He, like some of his brother bishops, did so not always perfectly, but with compassion. Hence, the grand-jury report does not tell the whole story. However, far more telling is that reassignment, sugar-coated rehabilitation, and the shuffling of credibly accused priests all happened. This was wrong. Silence clawed the hearts out of countless victims.

Steinfels is correct to conclude that not all bishops should be clumped together. There are many good and holy bishops, as there are priests who unfortunately (but understandably) are associated because the problem is so deep, dark, and profound. In my mind, there is a silver lining. Capable and honest shepherds, embracing the indelible radiance of God, will become stronger through all the pain. The flock, wherever they are, will accept that good, holy, human, and flawed clergy do serve the Lord with gladness only when sexual psychological disorder, evident in McCarrick and my abuser, is absent.

The grand-jury report does heighten the debate. It is imperative now that the Roman Catholic Church across the globe be laser-focused on two areas: healing the victims, and holding those in authority who knew anything to account. This must be the result of Pope Francis’s unprecedented summit. Anything short of this will further damage an already broken church, and his pontificate will be known for what he failed to do.

Finally, I agree with Steinfels to a point about the Dallas Charter. It was a good start but did not do enough. The church has changed with new policies, procedures, and practices to protect God’s children. But the one unfathomable hole has been a church then and since that has not held its top leaders to account. Barros Madrid in Chile, McCarrick in Washington, Pell in Australia, and others were around in 2002. Why did it take all these years for these revelations of prelates gone astray to come out?

Mark Joseph Williams
Far Hills, N. J.



Peter Steinfels’s criticisms of grand juries in general are not new. Most other common-law countries have abolished them and substituted a magistrate’s committal hearings, with the added advantage that the accused is entitled to be represented at that hearing and usually has the right to cross-examine witnesses.

The author’s main complaint is a legitimate one: that the grand jury did not distinguish between what had happened before 2002 and after the adoption in that year of the Dallas Charter; and that the grand-jury summary unfairly painted all bishops and dioceses with the same brush.

But I have to disagree with Steinfels on one point: “In 2002, the Dallas Charter mandated reporting all allegations to public authorities, cooperating in investigations, and advising victims of their rights.”

Article 4 of the Dallas Charter did require the reporting of all cases involving a minor at the time of the complaint to the civil authorities. It made no mention of the vast majority of complaints, which have been for “historical” abuse by persons over the age of majority at the time of the complaint. In those cases the charter said that the dioceses would advise victims of their right to report to the civil authorities, but there was no requirement for the church to report such abuse. It is therefore incorrect to say that the charter mandated reporting all allegations to public authorities.

Further, on October 14, 2002, Cardinal Re, then Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote to the American bishops stating that some aspects of the charter were “difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the Church.” One such aspect was the pontifical secret imposed by Secreta continere (1974) over all allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy and any information obtained in the church’s internal inquiries. Secreta continere contains no exception for reporting these crimes to public authorities.

After a meeting in Rome with a delegation of U.S. bishops, a compromise was reached, and a dispensation was granted to the U.S. bishops so that from then on, they were required under canon law to comply with civil laws on reporting: Article 11 of the recognitio given by the Vatican in December 2002.

In a report to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Ben Mathews examined the United States’s legal position on reporting and concluded that only twenty-seven states had clergy as mandatory reporters for victims who were still children at the time of the complaint. While the original Dallas Charter did require the reporting of all these cases, the Vatican ruling effectively meant that bishops could only do it in those twenty-seven states where clergy were mandatory reporters. For complaints of historical abuse and for children at risk in the remaining states, the pontifical secret still applied and prevented such reporting.

Archbishop Viganò and Cardinal Müller have both recently confirmed the application of the pontifical secret to allegations of child sexual abuse against clergy. The Australian Royal Commission found that the pontifical secret still applied to cases of child sexual abuse where there was no applicable civil reporting law and recommended its abolition in its December 2017 final report.

The grand-jury report makes one mention of the secrecy laws but did not examine them in detail as the Australian Royal Commission did. This is a pity, because if a bishop was not required by civil law to report abuse for any of the reasons mentioned above, and was prohibited by canon law from reporting it, then the real culprit is the Holy See.

The surprising thing is that Pope Francis has done nothing about this. Quite apart from the Australian Royal Commission’s recommendation in December 2017, Pope Francis’s own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had earlier recommended the abolition of secrecy laws in September 2017, as did the United Nations Committees for the Rights of the Child and against Torture in 2014.

There is a further problem. A fundamental principle of all coherent legal systems is that no one can be punished under the law unless they break it. That principle is enshrined in canon 221 of the 1983 Code. If Pope Francis is serious about making bishops accountable for cover-ups, he has to mandate reporting to public authorities under canon law in all cases and not just where the civil law requires it.

Kieran Tapsell
Stanwell Park, NSW, Australia



I believe Peter Steinfels misses the forest for the trees. It is fair enough to point out inconsistencies or overstatements in the grand-jury report, but what shocked so many in the pews in 2018 (even more so than in 2002) is what all the bishops in Pennsylvania failed to do for the last seven decades, not what they did since 2002. The report unmasked for all to see an egregious systemic failure (even if well intentioned in some cases) of the hierarchy to respond in a Gospel-based way to the evidence of immorality and crime among the clergy. No more accurate or nuanced report will take away the failure of those who assured the people in the pews that it was all taken care of in 2002.

Bill Casey
Alexandria, Va.



I forced myself to read the entire grand-jury report about the unthinkable acts committed by priests in Pennsylvania. They repulsed me to the point that I could no longer worship at my parish, where I have been involved for many years, and have even been on staff as a music professional working with children and youth. I am also a mother of three and grandmother of three, and these atrocities affected me in a unique way that you may not be able to know directly.

Each week the church reminds us that we are one body, so when I read how these innocents were molested and manipulated, even though I have not had anyone close to me go through this, it was my family who was betrayed.

Admittedly, I did not read your article thoroughly, but the tone of it left me feeling sick and disgusted again. If there were overstatements or details that were not 100 percent accurate, none of us really cares. If only one child had been molested and abused and the act was covered up, there should have been outrage and repentance from within the church hierarchy. As a prolife Christian, you might agree that the hypocrisy of an organization that consistently puts one prolife issue front and center, but covers up crimes of the flesh done to children, is deplorable.

Now welcomed into the Anglican communion, along with my husband, I will tell you what I said in writing to the local monsignors, archbishop, and even the pope: I did not leave the church; the church left me. For this, I am yet more deeply grieved.

Nancy Gifford-Humphreys
Doylestown, Penn.



I want to thank everyone who took the time and trouble to respond to my article. These responses fell into several categories.

1) Short notes of gratitude, many from church “insiders” who had worked, especially between 1990 and 2002, to sound the alarm and reform practices regarding clerical sex abuse. They felt that the Pennsylvania report had traduced that history but that only a relative “outsider” with a paper trail of writing, very critically at times, about the church could correct the record.

2) Protests that overstatements or exaggerations in the report don’t matter. I might agree if unsubstantiated accusations about the handling of abuse allegations amounted to, say, one or even two cases out of ten. What I found were approximately seven or eight cases out of ten. What would my correspondents think of a district attorney who wrongly prosecuted seven out of every ten cases, or a pharmacist who inaccurately filled seven out of every ten prescriptions?

3) Expressions of shock at the reality of the abuse. I share the horror but not the surprise. These responses alerted me to the failure of Catholics, myself included, to communicate the church’s very ugly but nonetheless evolving story of handling sex abuse. We have failed to communicate that story to younger Catholics for whom the 2002 Dallas Charter is ancient history, and even to longtime churchgoers like Ms. Gifford-Humphreys. Nor has the media successfully communicated the chilling extent of the sexual abuse of youth in general, more than 60,000 cases every year according to a recent report. (And that’s just in the United States.) Of those, the latest audits would suggest that perhaps a dozen of the perpetrators are Catholic priests. Yes, even one molested child or any cover-up deserves outrage. But those figures, even adjusted considerably for what we do not know, indicate an order of magnitude quite different from what many Catholics have come to believe.

4) I welcome Kieran Tapsell’s correction of my shorthand sentence about the Dallas Charter. The charter required cooperation with all civil investigations of abuse as well as reporting all allegations of current or recent abuse. It did not require reporting allegations by adults of past abuse. However, Mr. Tapsell, a retired Australian civil and canon lawyer, goes further. Here and elsewhere, he argues that canon law actually bars such reporting except when civil law explicitly demands it. His complicated argument builds on Crimen sollicitationis, a 1922 document, subsequently revised and complemented, that applies the so-called “pontifical secret” primarily to cases of soliciting sex in the confessional but also to pedophilia and bestiality. Other canonists have not been convinced. In 2010, for example, Nicholas Cafardi, a leading expert on the U.S. sex-abuse scandal, wrote in this journal that canonical secrecy “does not prevent victims, their families, or even church officials from reporting a civil crime to the civil authorities or to the media.”

More recently, Cafardi told a Pennsylvania paper, “Canon law doesn’t say take it to law enforcement, but it also doesn’t say that you can’t. It doesn’t say one way or another.”

I am no canonist, but Mr. Tapsell doesn’t convince me either. In reading hundreds of grand-jury accounts of how Pennsylvania church officials had handled allegations, I found no traces of concerns about the “pontifical secret,” whether in inhibiting the reporting of past abuse from earlier decades or in doing so regularly since 2002. Bishops in Pennsylvania and elsewhere across the country have long engaged in reporting past abuse in ways at odds with Mr. Tapsell’s interpretation of canon law, yet no instance of objection from Rome has come to my attention. Secrecy has indeed been a terrible obstacle to rooting out sexual abuse, but it has been the ordinary, insidious secrecy due to shame, taboo, family dynamics, and the ingrained, self-protective bureaucracies and cultures of groups like police, medical professionals, school and athletic administrators, and of course the Catholic clergy.

5) For many years, Mark Williams has been an eloquent voice for survivors of sex abuse by priests who have somehow managed to find their way through the pain to stronger and deeper faith. I would differ from his sentiments in only a few respects. First, I probably put more emphasis on the kind of institutional safeguards mandated by collective agreements like the Dallas Charter. As a person of far less sturdy faith than Mark (or Pope Francis), I feel the importance of guidelines and programs that can shape the conduct of all of us who are more mediocre in virtue or resolution. Second, while I agree that “reassignment, sugar-coated rehabilitation, and the shuffling of credibly accused priests all happened,” I also believe it is demonstrable that those things are happening in the United States at a tiny fraction of the frequency of several decades ago. To deny this is to build further reform efforts on a falsehood rather than on a (relative) success. Third, while healing victims and holding wrongdoers to account remain imperatives, they are not the only ones. As Catholicism in this country faces more than a dozen investigations in the wake of Pennsylvania’s, it is also imperative that anyone caring about the future of the kind of faith that has sustained Williams welcomes those investigations whenever they prove fair and accurate, however distressing—and object when they prove prejudiced, uninformed, unsubstantiated, or politically calculated.   

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Published in the March 8, 2019 issue: View Contents
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