Lessons from the plain, damning grand jury report on priests in Pennsylvania

A grand jury in Pennsylvania accused more than 300 priests of sexually abusing more than 1000 children, over a period of decades. The grand jury’s 1356 page report is an amazing document, a model for clarity of description in an emotionally charged environment.

I don’t clearly understand who writes documents like this or how. I’m imagining that someone (or a group of people) in the office of the attorney general writes them on behalf of the citizens in the grand jury, after which those citizens approve the result. I would have predicted that a committee process in a legal proceeding would produce a jargon-filled, inconsistent hash. Instead, we get a model of clarity, simple organization, and restraint in an environment laden with emotion.

I rarely issue content warnings in this space, but today I will: the report, which I will excerpt below, includes shocking descriptions of events perpetrated on children. If you don’t feel ready to handle content like that, don’t read the rest of this post.

How to summarize an outrageous tragedy

The report begins with an executive summary. If you’re in this situation, here’s your challenge. You feel outrage and you want to communicate that outrage. But this is a legal document, and outrage isn’t prosecutable. At the same time, a dry legal summary of prosecutable crimes seems inadequate. And you cannot hide the truth of these acts behind soft language — doing so would repeat the sins of the Catholic Church, which muffled these accusations to save their own reputation. The only approach is a clear and dispassionate description of the awful truth.

Here’s the start of what the grand jury wrote.

I. Introduction

We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.

We were given the job of investigating child sex abuse in six dioceses – every diocese in the state except Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, which were the subject of previous grand juries. These six dioceses account for 54 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse. We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests. Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands.

Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

As a consequence of the coverup, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted. But that is not to say there are no more predators. This grand jury has issued presentments against a priest in the Greensburg diocese and a priest in the Erie Diocese, who has been sexually assaulting children within the last decade. We learned of these abusers directly from 1 their dioceses – which we hope is a sign that the church is finally changing its ways. And there may be more indictments in the future; investigation continues.

But we are not satisfied by the few charges we can bring, which represent only a tiny percentage of all the child abusers we saw. We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated. This report is our only recourse. We are going to name their names, and describe what they did – both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve. And we are going to make our recommendations for how the laws should change so that maybe no one will have to conduct another inquiry like this one. We hereby exercise our historical and statutory right as grand jurors to inform the public of our findings.

This introduction will briefly describe the sections of the report that follow. We know it is very long. But the only way to fix these problems is to appreciate their scope.

Yes, this includes sentence fragments. It also includes unnecessary italics. But these are quibbles. It is written in direct and unornamented language. It describes the scope of the inquiry with numbers. It shares shocking details without the need for overwrought adjectives and adverbs.

Here’s what you can learn from this: if you have something shocking to say, or shocking facts to report, say it plainly. It will speak for itself. Don’t soften it, and don’t inflate it with the language of outrage. If the facts are damning, just write the facts and let the reader react.

While the acts that this document describes are reprehensible and terrifying in their scope, the very next section describes something even worse: how the Catholic Church handled the situation. If you wonder about the importance of language, pay close attention to the way the Church used words to minimize the impact of acts of child rape.

The dioceses

This section of the report addresses each diocese individually, through two or more case studies that provide examples of the abuse that occurred and the manner in which diocesan leaders “managed” it. While each church district had its idiosyncrasies, the pattern was pretty much the same. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid “scandal.” That is not our word, but theirs; it appears over and over again in the documents we recovered. Abuse complaints were kept locked up in a “secret archive.” That is not our word, but theirs; the church’s Code of Canon Law specifically requires the diocese to maintain such an archive. Only the bishop can have the key.

The strategies were so common that they were susceptible to behavioral analysis by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For our benefit, the FBI agreed to assign members of its National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime to review a significant portion of the evidence received by the grand jury. Special agents testified before us that they had identified a series of practices that regularly appeared, in various configurations, in the diocesan files they had analyzed. It’s like a playbook for concealing the truth:

First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocese documents. Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”

Second, don’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel. Instead, assign fellow clergy members to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.

Third, for an appearance of integrity, send priests for “evaluation” at church-run psychiatric treatment centers. Allow these experts to “diagnose” whether the priest was a pedophile, based largely on the priest’s “self -reports,” and regardless of whether the priest had actually engaged in sexual contact with a child.

Fourth, when a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on “sick leave,” or suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Or say nothing at all.

Fifth, even if a priest is raping children, keep providing him housing and living expenses, although he may be using these resources to facilitate more sexual assaults.

Sixth, if a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.

Finally and above all, don’t tell the police. Child sexual abuse, even short of actual penetration, is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personnel matter, “in house.”

This is euphemism on trial. It’s clear that if the Church were to refer to the acts these priests perpetrated as what they were — “rape” and “child abuse” — that this vast coverup would have been impossible. Failing to call violations what they are is a necessary step to minimizing and hiding those violations.

None of us deal with situations this awful, at this scale, in our everyday work. But whatever is going wrong at your workplace, pay attention to the words people use to describe it. Euphemisms implicate all who use them. And as this proceeding shows, when the truth comes out, those who helped hide it with euphemism share the guilt.

There’s one final lesson here: use specifics in summaries, rather than generalities. Use “for example” to show what’s happening. Here’s how the report does that, and it’s pretty damning (warning, these descriptions are graphic):

We recognize that victims in these circumstances were understandably disappointed there was no place they could go to be heard.

But we have heard them, and will tell their stories, using the church’s own records, which we reproduce in the body of the report where appropriate. In the Diocese of Allentown, for example, documents show that a priest was confronted about an abuse complaint. He admitted, “Please help me. I sexually molested a boy.” The diocese concluded that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim, and that the family should just be given “an opportunity to ventilate.” The priest was left in unrestricted ministry for several more years, despite his own confession.

Similarly in the Diocese of Erie, despite a priest’s admission to assaulting at least a dozen young boys, the bishop wrote to thank him for “all that you have done for God’s people…. The Lord, who sees in private, will reward.” Another priest confessed to anal and oral rape of at least 15 boys, as young as seven years old. The bishop later met with the abuser to commend him as “a person of candor and sincerity,” and to compliment him “for the progress he has made” in controlling his “addiction.” When the abuser was finally removed from the priesthood years later, the bishop ordered the parish not to say why; “nothing else need be noted.”

In the Diocese of Greensburg, a priest impregnated a 17-year-old, forged the head pastor’s signature on a marriage certificate, then divorced the girl months later. Despite having sex with a minor, despite fathering a child, despite being married and being divorced, the priest was permitted to stay in ministry thanks to the diocese’s efforts to find a “benevolent bishop” in another state willing to take him on. Another priest, grooming his middle school students for oral sex, taught them how Mary had to “bite off the cord” and “lick” Jesus clean after he was born. It took another 15 years, and numerous additional reports of abuse, before the diocese finally removed the priest from ministry.

A priest in the Diocese of Harrisburg abused five sisters in a single family, despite prior reports that were never acted on. In addition to sex acts, the priest collected samples of the girls’ urine, pubic hair, and menstrual blood. Eventually, his house was searched and his collection was found. Without that kind of incontrovertible evidence, apparently, the diocese remained unwilling to err on the side of children even in the face of multiple reports of abuse. As a high-ranking official said about one suspect priest: “At this point we are at impasse – allegations and no admission.” Years later, the abuser did admit what he had done, but by then it was too late.

Elsewhere we saw the same sort of disturbing disdain for victims. In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, church officials dismissed an incident of abuse on the ground that the 15 -year -old had “pursued” the priest and “literally seduced” him into a relationship. After the priest was arrested, the church submitted an evaluation on his behalf to the court. The evaluation acknowledged that the priest had admitted to “sadomasochistic” activities with several boys – but the sadomasochism was only “mild,” and at least the priest was not “psychotic.”

The Diocese of Scranton also chose to defend its clergy abusers over its children. A diocese priest was arrested and convicted after decades of abuse reports that had been ignored by the church. The bishop finally took action only as the sentencing date approached. He wrote a letter to the judge, with a copy to a state senator, urging the court to release the defendant to a Catholic 5 treatment center. He emphasized the high cost of incarceration. In another case, a priest raped a girl, got her pregnant, and arranged an abortion. The bishop expressed his feelings in a letter: “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” But the letter was not for the girl. It was addressed to the rapist.

There is no need to dramatize these accounts — they are quite sufficient to make their point with simple descriptions. You react emotionally to the narrative. In fact, you are emotionally defenseless. When we use words like “immoral” or “predatory” or “terrible,” the reader immediately puts up defenses, because writers use such weasel words so often to inflame passions. These accounts use no such words, making their impact all the more effective. When acts are outrageous, a simple description is more effective than a screed.

Tell the truth

I am heartsick to hear of how generations of children in Pennsylvania have suffered. I can only hope that by publicizing the scope of the problem, this report shows them that they are not alone, and that recovery is possible.

The grand jury’s report includes more than 1,000 pages of descriptions of individual acts of abuse, most of which will never be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations. It includes recommendations for how to change the law as well. I am hopeful that it will make a difference in the Church, and in the law.

But I know that it will make an impact.

If you confront wrongdoing, take heart from the courage of the people who wrote this report.

Do your research. Use numbers, clear descriptions, and examples to make your point. Avoid inflammatory words, but never use euphemisms. If you describe the truth as clearly as these people have, then you too will make an impact.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. In this country, we have had a Royal Commission, which carries wide powers of investigation and compulsion, but cannot prosecute.
    The findings have been similar, shocking, disgusting, covered up, and across a group of institutions wider than the Catholic church, but always with the responsibility of looking after children in one way or another.
    We even have a sitting Cardinal currently wriggling madly to avoid civil prosecution, who retains his church position, and an archbishop of the Anglican church was last week sentenced to 2 years detention for covering up the abuses in his dioceses.
    I guess after the first uncovering of this abuse which I think started in Boston on the early 90’s we should not be surprised.
    If there is a god, he’/she must be a real prick!

    1. The penalty for Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson was more pathetic than that.

      He will serve his 12-month jail sentence for concealing the child sex crimes of a Hunter Valley priest as home detention, and he could be free in as little as seven months.