The nearly 900-page report landed like a grenade when Josh Shapiro, then Pennsylvania’s attorney general, delivered it on a dais in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania five years ago. He described widespread child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church throughout Pennsylvania and a « sophisticated » cover-up by senior church officials. The abuse victims and their families, sometimes visibly crying, joined Mr. Shapiro on stage.
More than 300 priests were found to have abused children, at least 1,000 of them, over the course of seven decades. The report resonated at the highest levels of the church, with the Vatican expressing « shame and pain » over the findings. And it reached the benches, too: a Gallup poll the following year found it more than a third of Catholics in the United States they were considering abandoning the faith due to « recent reports of sexual abuse of young people by priests ».
In the years since the Pennsylvania report was released, it has inspired about 20 other investigations into the Catholic Church by state attorneys general.
Now the findings of those investigations are spreading, refocusing attention on the sprawling abuse scandal and in some cases providing new details. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul released a report in May that found more than 450 credibly accused child sex abusers in the Illinois Catholic Church since 1950. Nearly 2,000 children under 18 are been victims.
These complaints have not led to many prosecutions: many of the defendants have died or the statute of limitations has expired. But victims of clergy sexual abuse and their supporters say the reports have had a lasting impact in other ways. In some states, the reports have helped convince lawmakers to extend the time limits within which victims can sue alleged abusers. And many victims say such public and official acknowledgment of what happened is a welcome step.
« People talk about this as being about sex, or a more academic analysis is describing it as an issue of power, » said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group. « But it’s also about information. »
Investigations have so far been concluded in seven states and more are continuing, according to CHILD USAdvocacy, a group that supports stronger child abuse legislation.
The status of some of the investigations is unclear, frustrating activist groups. For example, the California Attorney General’s Office called on victims to come forward with their stories in 2018 and later issued subpoenas to several Catholic dioceses. The bureau hasn’t released a public update on the investigation in years and hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
The sheer numbers in state reports released thus far are staggering: 163 authors in Missouri, 97 in Florida, 188 in Kansas. There were long lists of credibly accused priests and others in Catholic ministry, thousands of pages of victim narratives, and front-page headlines about the findings. Attorneys general have been photographed with huge stacks of documents, kicking up doorstop publications that are the product of years of research and interviews.
The number of accused priests and incidents of abuse peaked between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, and have declined significantly since then, according to a 2011 study commissioned by Catholic bishops and conducted by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the University of the City of New York.
US bishops adopted new protocols in the early 2000s to crack down on abuses, including a series of « zero tolerance » policies. Historically, the church has withheld information about sexually abusive priests, often moving them from one parish to another without informing the people in the pews. The reports have prompted many dioceses to publish or update their lists of credibly accused clergy.
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, disputed some aspects of the Illinois Attorney General’s report and questioned the way some of the data was presented. Anyway, the archdiocese cooperated with the investigation, and Cardinal Cupich issued a statement apologizing « to all those harmed by the failure to adequately prevent and respond to child sexual abuse by clerics. »
In Maryland, Gov. Wes Moore signed into law a law in April abolishing the state’s statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse to sue child abusers, effective Oct. 1. He signed the bill less than a week after the state attorney general released a 436-page report documenting abuses in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
“AG reports are a measure of accountability, even if they don’t have a ton of teeth,” said Kathryn Robb, the executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, which helped write the new Maryland law. « They educate the public and they educate the lawmakers to understand: They have this ‘holy shit’ moment. »
Survivor groups have urged the Justice Department to mount a federal investigation into the church. Other groups have tried to sue the church under federal and state racketeering laws, but those suits failed due to high legal hurdles, including the need to prove « damage to business or property, » according to Stephen Rubino, an attorney who tried the civil-criminal approach in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Camden in the early 1990s. (That case was settled; Mr. Rubino later attempted another racketeering lawsuit that was dismissed.) Many dioceses, facing waves of new civil lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy.
For Mr. Shapiro, who is now the governor of Pennsylvania, the report has become a hallmark of his tenure as attorney general. During the election campaign, he said, people often pulled him aside to thank him for the report, sometimes identifying themselves as victims of specific priests named in it.
“From a Pennsylvania perspective, what’s most significant is how we’ve given a sense of justice to victims here,” Shapiro said in an interview Wednesday.
Mike McDonnell, 54, says he was abused by two priests in the Philadelphia area starting when he was 11. He didn’t tell anyone at the time what happened to him. He started drinking as a pre-teen and later became addicted to drugs. His story was mentioned in a 2005 grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Mr McDonnell said he probably never would have faced the reality of the abuse had he not seen the men who abused him named in the 2005 report. « Knowing me, I would have continued to anesthetize myself and find other compartments in my soul to bury it. » he said.
At first, she said, she found it unsettling to see her experience reflected in the report. He learned that he was not alone and that those in charge of the archdiocese of Philadelphia had known for years of the behavior of the two priests who had abused him.
One of them, Francis Trauger, was convicted in 2020 of molesting two altar boys and was sentenced to between 18 months and 36 months in prison. Mr. McDonnell, who now works for an advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, was in court for sentencing.
« To see this in print and in public records is truly monumental for those who have not been given a voice, » McDonnell said. « That validation is really a kick-start to one’s healing journey. »