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Grotesque Grand Jury Report on Abusive Priests: Questions and Answers

A new Pennsylvania grand jury report runs 1,356 pages and contains details of twisted priests and their wicked assaults on children in six separate Catholic dioceses spanning decades.

Having gone to Catholic school in the Greensburg diocese, I was relieved that none of the twenty priests named as abusers by the grand jury from that diocese were from the parish where I was baptized and confirmed. The Cathedral where I attended school, however, was not so lucky. The priest assigned there -- and who may well have given me first communion or heard confessions -- was indeed named as an abuser.

Other priests were described in the grand jury report as engaging in behavior so sacrilegious and incomprehensible that I can’t bring myself to describe it here. In one comparatively mild instance  -- using the word comparatively in only the most literal sense -- Fathers George Zirwas and Richard Zula and two other priests took Polaroid photos of a nude boy they asked to stand on a bed and pose like Christ on the cross.

Other acts of sacrilege and deviance fill the report that are just too much for me to recount. You can find them yourself here.

After reading the report, questions cascade like a waterfall. How did they get away with this for decades? Where was the law?

Former Beaver County District Attorney Robert Master testified to the grand jury that he shut down an investigation into a priest in the 1960s to “prevent unfavorable publicity” and win support for his political career. In other words, the law failed. Or, more accurately, the people entrusted to enforce the law failed.

Sometimes parents didn’t believe their own children when they reported the abuse. That would certainly enable the abuse to thrive.

The grand jury report is not without critics. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as Bishop of Pittsburgh, was faulted by the report for responding to the problem ineffectively. A Wuerl spokesman said the report represented a “flawed process” that built “unwaveringly toward a predetermined result.”

For sure, Pennsylvania Attorney General Joshua Shapiro engineered this report and approached past abuse in the Catholic Church with an unmatched zeal.

Attorney General Joshua Shapiro (photo PA Attorney General's office)

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League is another Shapiro critic. He notes that “some of the priests are innocent and have had no opportunity to defend themselves. Many are dead.”

Donohue argues that abuse in the Catholic Church is a problem largely from yesteryear, and that Shapiro isn’t so interested in the prevalent contemporary forum for child sex abuse -- namely public schools:

So if no one can be prosecuted, and there is no investigation of the clergy from other religions, to say nothing of the widespread sexual abuse of minors in the public schools, why is Shapiro presiding over the grand jury report on priests? It’s not exactly hard to figure out: he wants to stick it to the Catholic Church.