By the mid-1980s Catholic leaders began to emerge, all too unevenly, from their state of clerical denial and psychological cluelessness regarding sexual abuse. It was increasingly recognized that abuse of minors was not simply a sin requiring repentance, perhaps a retreat, and “a firm purpose of amendment”; such misconduct signaled a serious psychological pathology. Bishops began sending accused clergy for evaluation and treatment to a handful of treatment centers, mostly church-related and often originally founded to treat clerics suffering from alcoholism. At a time when official church procedures made removing individuals entirely from the priesthood an uncertain and prolonged affair, this “therapeutic option” seemed more promising. Unlike laicization it also seemed to maintain leverage over treated priests to comply with ongoing monitoring, restrictions, and aftercare.
Serious questions about these centers and their effectiveness remain open. The litigation seeking compensation for victims, which has overwhelmingly informed and framed media coverage of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, has targeted bishops. The treatment centers have largely escaped public attention, except when victims’ lawyers argued that these centers were either telling the bishop, who was after all paying for their services, whatever he wanted to hear or giving him cover even when he ignored their recommendations. In fact, it was a controversial director of St. Luke Institute in Maryland who first raised the alarm that clergy abuse was not a problem of a few bad apples but a systemic one. Many individuals staffing those centers had good professional qualifications. Recidivism, they believed, was exceptional.
As a reporter, I visited St. Luke in 1992. I was impressed with the staff’s professionalism, the rigor of their methods (at least as described to me), and their argument that it was better for endangered youth and the church to treat priests over whom the church retained considerable leverage than to “cut them loose” on society by laicizing them. I went away wondering if these dedicated professionals were overestimating their skills. But I also went away understanding why quite conscientious bishops, not just obtuse ones worried only about public image and protecting their clergy, would turn to the centers as the best option.
In some cases, this confidence proved misplaced. Some centers were definitely subpar. The Servants of the Paraclete’s center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, appears to have been a particular disaster, releasing “guests” still under treatment to do parish work around the Southwest—and creating many more victims. One notorious case was James Porter, sent there in 1967 from Fall River, Massachusetts; Porter continued to molest minors both as a priest and ex-priest until he was tracked down and arrested in 1993 after a sensational Primetime Live broadcast hosted by Diane Sawyer. The center closed its doors in the face of lawsuits in the 1990s and was no longer around when a flood of later accusations and lawsuits emerged.
There is much still unknown about these psychiatric programs. In 1992, therapists at St. Luke were well aware of cases like Porter’s from two decades before and insisted that knowledge and treatment were now “lightyears ahead.” Grave differences among centers appear to have persisted, however. The report begs this whole question by referring to “evaluation” and “diagnosis” and “treatment” in scare quotes, clearly implying that these were disingenuous maneuvers by bishops to cover up their irresponsibility.
In any case, the Dallas Charter’s zero-tolerance policy put an end to this “therapeutic option.” After 2002, no priest ever found credibly accused of abusing a minor, no matter how far in the past and regardless of whether the offender was now considered successfully treated, could remain in ministry.
The discrepancy of dates
There is an unforgettable scene at the end of Spotlight when the Boston Globe has gone to press with the first of its articles exposing abuse in the Boston archdiocese. All the phones in the newsroom start ringing with calls from victims finally empowered to report their own experiences from years or decades before. This frequent gap of many years between sexual abuse and victims’ coming forward is a widely recognized reality. It is crucial to understanding the psychological toll of abuse and the drive to extend statutes of limitations. It is also crucial to tracking the response of church officials.
When initial credible allegations against predatory priests were made after the Dallas Charter in 2002, the priests were automatically removed from ministry as quickly as possible. Many of the newly accused were in fact already retired, inactive, or deceased. In Pennsylvania, as across the nation, a sizeable percentage of initial accusations were post-2002. (Some in Pennsylvania seem to have been triggered by the Penn State University scandal in 2011.) Determining the dates when word of abuse first came to church officials is not always easy from the grand-jury report’s profiles, which often dwell on the sexual acts of the molester and sometimes the devastating effect on the victims. The profiles do not follow any uniform template: when abuses were committed, when reported, and how they were handled. There are no decade-by-decade summaries of how many priests were credibly accused, retained in active or restricted ministry, sent into treatment, removed from active ministry, and/or laicized.
Certainly the trauma and stigma that kept these victims silent demand self-scrutiny by both the church and the larger culture. But anyone investigating the decisions that church officials made should be aware that, by my estimate, the allegations against at least one-third of the 301 offenders profiled came to light only after 2002, i.e., when the decision to remove them from active ministry was established policy.
Examining the contents
This brings us to the substance of the report itself. Does it substantiate its sweeping and damning condemnations of the bishops and other church leaders?
Let us simply look at one diocese. I have chosen Erie for a number of reasons. In response to the grand-jury investigation, Bishop Lawrence Persico, who has led the diocese since 2012, commissioned an independent study of its handling of sex abuse by a team from K&L Gates, a Pittsburgh-based international-law firm. The team of investigators and lawyers was headed by a former federal prosecutor and given access to all diocesan files and personnel. The team interviewed 113 people and examined more than 100,000 documents, a deeper dive into the diocese’s record than the grand jury’s. In addition, the Erie diocese was led from 1990 to 2012 by Bishop Donald W. Trautman. Many bishops from the time period covered by the report are either deceased or now leading other dioceses. Bishop Trautman is neither. As Erie’s bishop during twenty-two crucial years for the sex-abuse scandal yet no longer constrained by the pastoral priorities of active bishops, he was well placed to speak candidly in his own extended response. Thus there are three points of reference—the report’s summaries of abuse and church actions; Erie’s independent Gates study; and Bishop Trautman’s response. All three are united in expressing sorrow and contrition for, in Trautman’s words, the “horrible and sinful acts” of abusers and their “terrible impact” on victims.
There are forty-one Erie offenders profiled in the report, including the three notable examples described at length. One of the three masturbated at least a dozen thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds under the pretext of performing “cancer checks” on their penises. A second priest, known to have a violent personality, was accused of extended relationships with both an underaged female and male along with instances of brutal assaults. The third priest admitted to anal and oral sex with boys seven to twelve years old.
In all three cases, the abuse came to light in the mid-1980s, under Bishop Michael J. Murphy, Bishop Trautman’s predecessor. The abuse itself went back a decade or more earlier. Murphy sent accused priests for evaluation and, if necessary, treatment, mainly to St. Luke and Southdown, a well-respected center in Canada. Trautman sometimes did so as well although his practice seems to have been not to return any to parish ministry, not even with the center’s recommended restrictions. Having inherited the three outstanding examples from Murphy, Trautman “grandfathered” them, abiding by their agreements with his predecessor to submit to psychiatrically prescribed monitoring and aftercare—unless, Trautman added, some further allegations arose from their pre-treatment pasts. Which in each case happened.
The first priest was already limited to ministries having no proximity to children when Trautman took office in 1990. The second priest had been assigned to a parish by Murphy after treatment, and Trautman let him remain there until he retired in 2000. In 2002, allegations were made about that priest’s conduct in the 1960s and ’70s. Within weeks, Trautman suspended him from the priesthood and eventually had him defrocked. Immediately after taking office, Trautman met with the third priest, now apparently “clean” after four years in therapy for sexual and substance abuse. Bishop Murphy had assigned him to a parish in 1987 and Trautman left him there until 1992 when, following the advice of the priest-personnel board, Trautman reassigned him, again barring him from being alone with children. A year later, having received a fresh allegation of the priest’s abuse in the early 1970s, Trautman restricted him to nursing homes and certain units of a VA hospital. In 2002, when allegations arose of other abuse in the late 1960s, Trautman withdrew him from ministry altogether and moved to have him laicized.
Briefly, that is the story of the three with Trautman’s input. The grand-jury report reads very differently. It stresses not concerns for victims and potential victims but legal precautions, secrecy, and public pressures as the motivation for all diocesan actions. People known to have abused, it says, were reassigned “multiple times” and remained “cloaked in the authority of the priesthood.” The emphatic language of Trautman’s eventual appeals to Rome for laicization is cited as belated admissions of awful conduct that had been previously known but hidden. In the case of Trautman’s initial meeting with the apparently “clean” priest in aftercare after undergoing treatment, the report quotes Trautman’s impression that the priest was “a person of candor and sincerity” whom he had complimented on “the progress he has made.”
What to make of such differences? Obviously there is an asymmetry in prominence. The report’s account appears on page 4 and again at great length on pages 69–142. Trautman’s appears on page 982. (In the Office of the Attorney General's online version, Trautman’s account does not of course appear at all.) For Trautman, the report is “artful,” and “misleading” in quoting selectively while ignoring the overall pattern found in both his own testimony and the independent study submitted by the diocese to the grand jury. In particular, he points to numerous omissions.
The report, for instance, states—accurately—that Trautman reassigned the first of the three examples “multiple times.” The report omits that these reassignments were to a chaplaincy at a nursing home, a senior-living facility, and briefly a hospital and several jails for adults. The priest was forbidden to function as a priest outside these chaplaincies and eventually to wear any priestly garb. Faced with resistance, Trautman successfully moved to have him defrocked.
Omitted, too, is the fact, according to Trautman, that “none of these priests is known to have reoffended.” Whatever the wisdom, in retrospect, of maintaining these priests even in restricted and monitored ministries, that fact seems pertinent and deserving of mention.
The report also omits that Trautman, in twenty-two years as bishop, personally met or attempted to meet every victim and provided pastoral counseling and funds for therapy.
It omits his decision in 2002 to have all diocesan files reviewed by the Erie County district attorney, who concluded that “no offenders remained in a position where they would present a danger.”
It also omits his establishment in 2003 of the Diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Youth with full-time workers, as well as the diocese’s prompt notification of law enforcement in Pennsylvania or elsewhere whenever new allegations emerged.
Although acknowledging that some of his decisions “might be subject to critique,” there is no evidence, Trautman wrote to the grand jury, that he “moved priests from parish to parish to ‘cover up’ abuse” and “no pattern or practice of putting the Church’s image or a priest’s reputation above the protection of children.”
“All of the above facts can be derived from diocesan records and information that was available to the grand jury,” Trautman wrote. “None are in the report. Is that fair? Is that a balanced attempt to report full facts?”
The contrasting stories told by the report and Bishop Trautman can also be checked against the Gates study commissioned by the diocese. The Gates study does not mince words: “Within the Erie Diocese,” it acknowledges, “horrific abuse occurred—and was concealed—from as early as the 1940s through the 1980s. Less systematic but equally reprehensible acts occurred in later years when criminals within the Church took advantage of the trust previously given to all clergy.”
The Gates study proceeds to give an example representing the “historical failures” of the church. In 1994, allegations surfaced that then-Fr. Michael Barletta had abused students in the 1970s and ’80s, long before Trautman’s tenure. But Trautman contacted a priest who had lived in a rectory with Barletta. This fellow priest described witnessing the accused with a naked teenager in the 1970s and reporting this to then-Bishop Alfred Watson. “Mind your own business,” Watson had told him; “go back to the rectory, and be a good priest.” According the diocesan study, “Watson then proceeded to transfer Barletta to a different school, where Barletta then abused additional teenagers.” This was a classic case of the “shuttling” or “shuffling” of an abuser from one parish to another, adding new abuse to the damage already done.
“Before 1982,” the Gates study concludes, “abuse allegations were not properly handled.... Bishop Watson’s tenure from 1969 to 1982 is marred by numerous abuse cases, along with a complete disregard for protecting children from accused priests.”
That changed, “although inadequately by today’s standards,” the Gates study found, with Bishop Murphy’s arrival in 1982. Murphy assigned accused priests to ministries “where children were not present, such as the military, a nursing home, or a convent.” As already noted, he also availed himself of medical professionals.
The Gates study is not uncritical of Bishop Trautman, stating that he “improved the practices” but “could have been better in certain areas.” One was the monitoring of priests working or living under restrictions, a criticism Trautman contests but one expressed by some diocesan priests. Another was in “informing the public of priest disciplinary issues”—an important point to be taken up later.
Nonetheless, in many specifics, the Gates study is highly supportive of practices begun and expanded under Trautman. Under him, the study says, “The Erie Diocese promulgated its first child protection policy over 30 years ago, well before the Church required such a policy and well before the devastating newsmaking events at the Boston Archdiocese, Penn State, USA Gymnastics, and other high-profile institutions.”
“It would be unfair to provide the public with only half of the story,” the Gates study declares.
Summing up Erie