Growing Up in Harrisburg, Us Kids Knew Some Priests Were Monsters. So Did the Bishops Who Are Still Pretending Otherwise.
A grand jury exposed the grave sins the Catholic Church preferred to handle in-house and behind closed doors to get matters ‘sufficiently repaired.’
The grand jury in Harrisburg, PA, where I attended Catholic school for 12 years, released a searing report on how evil men perpetrated horrible acts on innocent children, how other evil men protected them, and how yet other evil men moved them to new parishes where they harmed again.
These evil men are Catholic priests and those who protected them are bishops, protected by an even more powerful man, Pope Francis, who promised to find the real killer, or killers, and has failed miserably. In fact, the church didn’t undertake the investigation released Tuesday that found 300 priests over 70 years abused 1,000 children in Pennsylvania. A grand jury did.
The report reads like the script for a horror movie. One priest arranged an abortion for the 17-year old girl he’d raped, and the “grief” described in an interview at the time was for the priest. Another groomed his altar boys before oral sex and another bought a boat with a friend for the purpose of molesting boys away from prying eyes. When a priest made his rounds visiting the sick in a hospital, he stopped to rape a 7-year-old who’d had her tonsils removed.
At my alma mater, Bishop McDevitt High School, there was a priest, Augustine Giella, who spied on girls going to the bathroom. You can read all about him in the grand jury’s report. Giella was protected by the former bishop of Harrisburg, William Keeler, who was also aware of allegations that five girls in one family were molested by Giella after one of them bravely went to her parents. Keeler didn’t remove Giella but let him retire. Years later, arrested on other charges, the police found evidence of his sick life: girl’s panties, pubic hairs and vials of urine labeled with initials.
That’s one priest and one bishop in a movie with a cast of hundreds. The film has no hero who rises to vanquish the monsters, just endless sequels. It was 15 years ago that the Boston Globe uncovered terrible abuse in Massachusetts, winning a Pulitzer Prize. Spotlight, a movie about it, won an Oscar three years ago. Then life moved on, as if a newspaper and film studio had purged the whole American church of its criminal element.
Not in Pennsylvania, one of the few states to take on the burden of reporting these horrific crimes, even after the statute of limitations on most of them has long since expired. Even in the relatively clueless 60’s and 70’s, we knew there was something off about priests who gave too much attention to the boys. The ones who kept our friends and brothers way too long in the sacristy after Mass, went swimming with them at the CYO pool, took them on outings to watch minor league baseball, and slipped them extra tickets for the roller coaster on class trips to Hershey Park, Harrisburg’s Disneyland. Girls were invisible. I came in second in the diocesan spelling bee (I didn’t know accommodate has two “m”s) and the monsignor forgot to hand me my trophy.
But women couldn’t be priests, girls couldn’t be altar boys, and that’s just the way it was. And the way it is. For every victim who’s come forward, the report emphasizes, there are thousands of other cases that remain undocumented: victims still too afraid to report their abuse, others who’ve died, some at their own hand; records lost or destroyed, and clergy still trying to cover up and talk down the scandal.
This is what the state’s grand jury found about the church’s sins:
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”
The current bishop of Harrisburg, Ronald Gainer, comes from the Keeler school of pastoral care and prefers cover-up to exposure. He reportedly tried to kill the grand jury, and pleaded with the Vatican not to defrock two priests—the one on the boat and another who had repeatedly raped a girl starting when she was 8. Things had been “sufficiently repaired,” Gainer said, by informally ending their careers in the priesthood. As “penance” for his sins about to become public, Gainer released the names of abusive priests who’d served under his authority minutes before the grand jury did.
Efforts to blot the stain on the church are fractured. Conservative Catholics pretend there are no pederasts in their midst, the way evangelicals ignore infidelity to protect the president. Some liberal Catholics prefer to downplay the problem rather than have it seem like they are attacking gay men. One of the cures put forward is to end celibacy but it’s a change that wouldn’t help if the church didn’t also embrace gay marriage. Many young men enter the seminary at an age so young they scarcely know their sexuality. When they find out, whatever it turns out to be, most see that young males are targets of opportunity. They channel their urges accordingly.
Some Catholics have blamed nuns who had an up-close view of priests, and some in Ireland and surely elsewhere were indeed complicit. But in the world I grew up in, nuns watched out for the girls the priests neglected. I wouldn’t lead the life I do if my 6th grade teacher hadn’t passed on back issues of The New Yorker and drilled me on grammar, or if Mother Marita Joseph hadn’t disciplined the mean girls with a look. They were servants not just of the Lord but of the higher status priests. They taught and went home and never saw the priests engaged in their so-called “horse play.”
What’s clear is that sick priests gravely harmed children and their superiors helped them escape any consequences for those terrible acts. The church’s abject failure to stop the shameful behavior is embodied in the retirement of Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Dressed in hand-sewn silk vestments, he swanned around Washington, promoted despite his alleged pederasty by other princes in even grander robes. He allegedly abused one boy whom he baptized as an infant, several seminarians, and anyone else he could find along the way. Finally, the Pope recalled him for “prayer and penance,” to make up for his sins in an apartment in Rome rather than be incarcerated locally in an Alexandria jail like Paul Manafort, whose crimes pale in comparison.
You know little has changed when you look at who’s been appointed to fill McCarrick’s velvet slippers. Cardinal Donald Wuerl protected and moved around a number of priests when he was Bishop of Pittsburgh, yet is now a heartbeat away from the papacy. He serves as exhibit A in the grand jury’s conclusion that until prelates stop getting promotions, “it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”
Other states, are you listening? Pope Francis?
Say a prayer for the priests’ lost souls and then expose them and oust them and let them face secular punishment. It’s the only way to stop the evil.