By Laurie Goodstein
Aug. 1, 2018
Anticipating the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report exposing decades of mishandled sexual abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church, the bishop of Harrisburg on Wednesday ordered that the names of former bishops dating to the 1940s be stripped from church buildings.
This was the first time a bishop has conducted such a sweeping purge of his predecessors’ legacies, although the names of individual bishops and priests involved in sexual abuse scandals have been excised from church buildings in other dioceses.
Harrisburg is among six dioceses in a heavily Catholic region of Pennsylvania that are bracing for the release of what is expected to be a devastating grand jury report exposing more than 300 priests accused of sexual abuse over seven decades, as well as the bishops who failed to remove them from the ministry. The Harrisburg and Greensburg dioceses had tried last year to end the grand jury’s investigation, according to court records reported by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The bishop of Harrisburg, Ronald W. Gainer, also published on Wednesday a list of 71 clergy members, seminarians and church personnel accused of sexual abuse of children since the 1940s and said their names would be removed from church buildings, schools and halls.
“The decision to remove names of bishops and clerics may prove to be controversial, but as bishops, I strongly believe that leaders of the diocese must hold themselves to a higher standard and must yield honorary symbols in the interest of healing,” Bishop Gainer said in a news conference.
The move comes as Catholics in the United States have been reeling from a new wave of accusations that have brought down an American cardinal and revealed possible cover-ups at the church’s highest levels. Church officials knew for decades about allegations that the former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, had sexually molested young men training to be priests in New Jersey, but they failed to take action.
With outraged Catholics calling for a Vatican investigation into Archbishop McCarrick, the president of the United States bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, released a statement on Wednesday saying that the accusations “reveal a grievous moral failure within the church.” He said that the bishops’ conference had begun to consider a course of action and would “pursue the many questions” raised by the case “to the full extent of its authority.”
The sexual abuse scandal in the American Catholic church exploded in Boston in 2002, leading some bishops to resign amid allegations that they had protected predators or abused minors themselves. Catholics in Pennsylvania have endured several rounds of grand jury investigations and reports that revealed widespread cover-ups.
The church, however, has a powerful pull in the statehouse in Harrisburg and has successfully fought off efforts by abuse victims and their advocates to expand the statute of limitations, which would give victims a longer period in which to bring civil or criminal cases. Among the many Catholic state legislators, one of them, Representative Mark Rozzi of Temple, Pa., is a survivor of sexual abuse who has become a tenacious advocate for expanding the statute of limitations.
On Wednesday, however, Bishop Gainer waived the confidentiality agreements of abuse victims who had received settlements from the diocese, permitting them to speak publicly without fear of legal repercussions. The release of names of the 71 priests, deacons and seminarians who have been credibly accused of abuse in Harrisburg since 1947 covers the period examined by the grand jury.
The bishop said the diocese had also posted new guidelines to prevent child sexual abuse.
The Harrisburg diocese does not know how many places will have the names of bishops or priests removed, a spokesman, Joe Aponick, said. Many parishes have buildings or rooms named after accused priests, he said, and a conference center and a retirement residence for priests are named after former bishops.
With his blanket decree, Bishop Gainer did not say how many of his predecessors had been negligent in handling abuse. The only living former bishop of Harrisburg is Kevin C. Rhoades, who is now the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Bishop Rhoades did not respond to a request for a comment. The most prominent of Harrisburg’s former bishops is Cardinal William H. Keeler, who as archbishop of Baltimore was the first American bishop to volunteer to post the names of priests accused of abuse in his archdiocese. Cardinal Keeler died in 2017.
Joe Grace, a spokesman for the state attorney general, Josh Shapiro, called the release of the names of accused perpetrators “long past due.” He said that the Harrisburg diocese had previously pushed to end the grand jury investigation.
“Their proclamations today only come after intense public pressure and in the face of the imminent release of the grand jury report exposing decades of child abuse and cover-up,” Mr. Grace said.
Bishop Gainer said at the news conference that he had intended to publish a list of accused perpetrators earlier but waited because he had been asked by the attorney general’s office to hold off while the grand jury was investigating.
But Mr. Grace responded, “The diocese of Harrisburg had decades to publish these names, and then they wanted to give them out in the middle of our active grand jury investigation, when it could only harm our investigation.”
The grand jury report has been ready for many weeks, but its release was delayed by objections from people who are said to be identified in it. The state Supreme Court decided recently to allow the release of a redacted version of the report. It will cover the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
The grand jury investigation has already resulted in one guilty plea by a priest. On Tuesday, the Rev. John Thomas Sweeney, of the Greensburg diocese, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old schoolboy 16 years ago. The boy had been sent to him for discipline because he had misbehaved on a school bus. Until he was arrested and charged last summer, the priest was working in parishes and had access to children.
Another grand jury report, released in 2016, cataloged the scope of abuse in one small Pennsylvania diocese, that of Altoona-Johnstown, and found that bishops there had failed to notify the police or remove abusers from ministry.
News of that last grand jury report prompted hundreds of victims to call a hotline set up in the office of the previous attorney general, Kathleen G. Kane. Her successor, Mr. Shapiro, convened a grand jury that heard testimony from victims over nearly two years.
Bishop Gainer said on Wednesday, “I express profound sorrow, and I apologize to the survivors of sexual abuse, to the Catholic faithful and to the general public for the abuses that took place and for those church officials who failed to protect children.”