Josh Shapiro is the attorney general of Pennsylvania.
The images were heart-rending. Flames roaring through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, its Gothic spire collapsing into the inferno. A gash into the heart of Catholicism, one observer wrote.
The response was as breathtaking as the fire. It came from Catholics in France, Rome and around the world, united by their resolve to take swift action. French business leaders pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for repairs. President Emmanuel Macron vowed that Notre Dame will be rebuilt within five years. Other countries promised financial aid. Pope Francis himself reached out to Macron to express his “solidarity with the French people.”
The rapid response is appropriate and affirming, as the followers and leaders of one of the world’s great religions come together, united by their humanity to save a monumental symbol of their faith.
But where is the unity and common purpose to protect the human embodiment of that great faith? Where is the sense of urgency and acceptance of responsibility to support the victims and survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy?
In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where I am attorney general, a statewide grand jury working with my office led the way last year when it published a groundbreaking report that identified 301 predator priests, more than a thousand victims of sexual abuse and an institutional coverup that stretched all the way to the Vatican.
And yet, after the grand jury released its report, along with a set of recommendations to protect victims and ensure this kind of abuse and coverup never happens again, the response from the church and its leaders was far less affirming and swift than the response to the Notre Dame fire.
Church leaders — including bishops in the Pennsylvania dioceses where the abuse happened — said most of the abuse occurred in the past. Yet some of the church officials who covered up the abuse are still in leadership positions, and law enforcement authorities at many levels, in many jurisdictions, are investigating new claims of abuse. Further, it must be said that child abuse is child abuse — whether it happened 20 years ago or today.
The same church officials who claim to have turned a page, treating the grand jury report as a historical document, are now actively blocking the crucial legislative reforms recommended by the grand jurors.
The reforms would, in part, extend both the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for sexual abuse claims. Significantly, the reform would also open a civil window to allow victims to sue their abusers and the institutions that covered it up.
While the supporters of rebuilding Notre Dame pledged $900 million within days, the most significant spending in Pennsylvania has been the millions of dollars spent by the church’s lobbying arms and the insurance industry to block the reforms from becoming law.
The church’s reluctance to unite behind the victims of clergy abuse is not specific to Pennsylvania, and sadly, it is not new.
For decades, the victims and survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and clergy throughout the country and around the world have faced denials, stonewalling and evasions as they sought justice. In the Vatican a couple of months ago, a papal summit to address the worldwide crisis of clergy sexual abuse produced little if anything in the way of concrete reforms.
Despite the church’s inaction, a reckoning is happening. Since Pennsylvania’s grand jury report was released, at least 16 states have opened similar investigations of clergy abuse. The Justice Department has begun a probe, and I have urged Attorney General William P. Barr and other department senior officials to make the investigation a priority. More than 1,000 predator priests have been identified in various states, and more than 1,700 people have called a clergy abuse hotline in my state.
As a prosecutor who investigated child abuse in Pennsylvania and who has seen abuse and coverup in other institutions — colleges, prisons, government — I would recommend the Catholic Church take five actions now to protect children.
• Listen to victims and survivors.
• Follow the patterns. Predator priests and enabling bishops employed the same methods in every part of Pennsylvania.
• Turn over the secret archives. If the church is ready for full transparency, officials should immediately give any records regarding abuse and coverup to law enforcement authorities.
• Talk to law enforcement. As the church decides how to proceed, involve law enforcement in those conversations. We know how to respond to child abuse.
• Institute a zero-tolerance policy. Any clergy member who abuses a child or covers it up must be removed immediately.
Repairing a religious and cultural symbol such as Notre Dame Cathedral is important. But protecting the many victims and survivors of clergy abuse is, if anything, even more important. All over the country and all over the world, they wait and hope for a similarly urgent response.