In 1972, Pope Paul VI warned that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church of God.” We see that smoke throughout the report from a Pennsylvania grand jury, which alleges that more than 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children in six Pennsylvania dioceses — including 99 priests from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which was led for 18 years by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington.
How bad was the abuse? The report notes that “during the course of this investigation, the Grand Jury uncovered a ring of predatory priests operating within the [Pittsburgh] Diocese who shared intelligence or information regarding victims as well as exchanging the victims amongst themselves. This ring also manufactured child pornography . . . [and] used whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims.” According to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, one victim, a boy named George, “was forced to stand on a bed in a rectory, strip naked and pose as Christ on the cross for the priests. They took photos of their victim, adding them to a collection of child pornography which they produced and shared on church grounds.” Abusing a child while mocking the Passion of Christ is truly diabolical.
Wuerl, who served as the bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006, did discipline some priests — and even went to the Vatican to fight an order that he reinstate one. But the grand jury also wrote that he reassigned other predator priests — including the one who “groomed” George and introduced him to the ring that photographed him. In at least one case, Wuerl required a victim to sign a “confidentiality agreement” barring him from discussing his abuse with any third party as part of a settlement. That is a coverup. In addition, the grand jury also wrote that under his leadership the diocese failed to report allegations of abuse to law enforcement, advocated for a convicted predator at sentencing, and then provided a $11,542.68 lump-sum payment to the disgraced priest after his release from prison.
The grand jury report comes on the heels of the sickening accusations that Wuerl’s predecessor as Washington archbishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, sexually abused seminarians and young priests, and spent nearly 20 years molesting a young boy, the first person he baptized, beginning when the child was 11.
After the McCarrick allegations, Wuerl declared, “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.” Excuse me, Your Eminence? It is a massive, massive crisis. How was McCarrick allowed to rise through the hierarchy despite the countless warnings to both his fellow bishops and the Vatican that he was a sexual predator? Who knew? Who helped him? The same conspiracy of silence that allowed sexual predators to flourish in Wuerl’s Pittsburgh diocese for decades also allowed McCarrick to become, until just a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful American cardinals, even in retirement.
This is not just a matter of getting rid of a few bad apples. There is a ring of abusers and their enablers in the Catholic hierarchy that must be rooted out. Every report of abuse that was overlooked or ignored, every abuse that was covered up with a nondisclosure agreement, must be exposed. The bishops and cardinals who ignored or covered up abuses are complicit and must be removed. The church must be cleansed, and the conspiracy of silence ended.
The only way to do this is through an independent investigation. The church has proved itself incapable of self-investigation and self-policing — which is evidenced by the fact we are just learning new details of the horrific extent of abuse from a grand jury 16 years after the scandal first erupted. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Michael Strain has recommended bringing back former Oklahoma governor, federal prosecutor and faithful Catholic Frank Keating to lead the investigation. In 2003, Keating resigned from a lay-member church-appointed board looking into abuse after he refused to apologize for comparing the coverup by the bishops to the Mafia. That makes him precisely the right man for the job.
The bishops not only failed the victims but have also scandalized the church, undermined its teaching authority and driven countless people away from Christ. How many failed to go to confession, or left the sacraments, because of their actions — or their failure to act? We will never know. But they should heed Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus warns, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” This must be a time of repentance. Repentance requires accountability. And accountability requires resignations — starting with Wuerl’s.