A Peek Behind the Catholic Veil in the Pennsylvania Sex Abuse Cover-Up

Last week Pennsylvania was in the national spotlight for another big sex abuse scandal. This time it involves over 50 Catholic priests and other leaders who sexually abused hundreds of children in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. The investigation began 2 years ago in Johnstown, less than 20 miles from my home. I am currently working my way through the Grand Jury’s 147 page report, which I will post below. I highly recommend reading this report in its entirety after reading my thoughts on how cover-ups of this magnitude still happen regularly. But first, we need to remember that these are real victims with real names, real families, and lasting struggles. Many of the hundreds of victims in this report thought about or attempted suicide, and these hundreds of victims only account for an 8-county radius around my home. This kind of abuse is going on every single day all over the country. There is an estimated 42 million living people just in the US who have suffered sexual assault by an adult when they were a child. This 147 page report is significant.

The late Father Joseph Bender became angry with young boys who refused his advances. “Bender would lash out in anger when the children rebuffed his advances. In a particular incident Bender grabbed a boy by the neck and asked ‘don’t you love me anymore” when the child insisted on wearing underwear to bed. . . The challenge after being Bender’s victims wasn’t to attempt to live well, but to attempt to simply live.” One of Bender’s victims from the 70s wrote an anonymous letter to Bishop Joseph Adamec in 1991 giving details of forced foreplay, masturbation, and oral sex. The victim wrote, “Because I respected his position, and feared the consequences of disobeying him, I would remain silent. I would estimate that I was abused approximately one hundred times.” That letter was stored along with scores of others in the secret archive of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

As I read through this report about priests abusing in the name of God, forcing 8 year old children to perform oral sex on them hundreds of times, forcing them to get drunk, anally raping them, and inflicting unfathomable mental abuse on top of the sexual abuse, I get angry. But my anger is not only reserved for the pedophiles who were relentless in their abuse of helpless children. It’s also aimed at the deadbeat bishops and law enforcement officials who knew about the abuse and chose to shuffle these pedophiles from church to church while remaining silent. But my righteous anger doesn’t stop there. While the Catholics get their share of justified finger pointing, they are not alone–not by a long shot. We at Church Protect regularly hear stories about churches of every stripe who chose to invite pedophiles into their ranks and grant them access to children. In our experience, church leaders routinely allow even convicted pedophiles to waltz back into their churches, “redeemed” by the blood of the lamb and with very few restrictions. One desperate message to me chronicled a group of elders who gave their blessing to a convicted pedophile who had recently been released from prison. The registered sex offender offered to house a struggling youth in his basement under the guise of offering moral support and being a positive role model. Not surprisingly, he attempted to rape the young church girl. Surely an attempted rape of a young troubled youth from their church by a convicted child predator would cause the elders to ban him from that congregation, right? Nope. The girl was told to sit elsewhere if this man made her feel uncomfortable.

I would not experience daily anger if I didn’t daily hear these same stories time and time again. My guess is that people reading this post are getting angry that this kind of thing goes on in churches regularly. I also imagine that anyone who actually takes the time to read the Grand Jury’s report will get angry reading it. But here’s my question–why do people get angry at stories about child predators but turn completely passive when actually interacting with them in real life? All of a sudden we move from the facts of raping young children to shoddy theologies of sin, grace, and assimilation. “Well, they seem genuinely remorseful,” the argument goes, “so I’m sure they’ll never harm a child again.” But they do. Again and again and again. Read the report. It’s full of records of rehab, confessions, promises to change, victim blaming, and minimizing the abuse. The sad thing is that it works and pedophiles know it.

In his book Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches, Patrick Parkinson has a short but excellent section on repentance. Here’s what he says:
Forgiveness can have little meaning if the offender has no intention of stopping the abuse. . . In the area of child sexual abuse, repentance has often been confused with remorse. Remorse is what happens in the back of a police car. Repentance means taking full responsibility for the offending and walking the painful road of lasting change. . . The offender may well feel devastated by the prospect of losing these things. Such deep remorse may well be taken for repentance, but the signs of true repentance are in deeds, not in tears. . . The repentant offender ought to be willing to acknowledge to the police and the courts that he has done wrong, that he has committed criminal offences of the utmost gravity and deserves to be punished.

Parkinson also argues that a repentant abuser will take every step to make reparation. Just as we learned as children that an apology for a broken window must be accompanied with an offer to pay for the window, so there must be reparation as adults. The abuser will at very least voluntarily pay for counseling bills of all of his or her victims. In more significant cases, Parkinson rightly argues that the offender may have “to sell his house, or his car. It is costly, but it is also just.” I have argued, and continue to argue, that a repentant child molester will insist on being removed from the presence of children precisely because they have proved time and time again that they cannot be near children without fondling, massaging, raping, and performing oral sex on them. This response does not mean that the church “has it out” for pedophiles. Rather, they have the safety of children as their top priority. A repentant offender will be more than happy to be part of a church with strong accountability–where he or she is still free to worship with other adults and not be near children.

But sadly, this biblical stance of repentance and accountability is viewed as inhumane, cruel, and unjust. And so, like the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, churches of all denominations in 2016 continue to mistake remorse for repentance and they routinely let pedophiles join their worship, preach, lead children’s programs, all while keeping their congregants in the dark about the abuser’s past. So why do churches enable (and thereby bless) abuse to take place in practice while condemning it in theory?

If we peel back the veil in the Pennsylvania Catholic abuse case, I believe we would find two bishops who covered up the abuse not because they hate children and like to know that they’re being abused, but because they mistook remorse for repentance. In the report, they did confront accused clergy time and time again. But every single time they allowed them to continue in ministry. Why? Unfortunately, the power of persuasion by an offender is a louder voice than the cries of abused children. The best leverage an abuser can get (and they may even request it!) is face time with church authorities. Abusers know how easy it is to use emotion to minimize abuse, explain details away, rewrite children’s memories, and plead for mercy. And it works. This is one reason we recommend churches never investigate allegations of abuse themselves. Church leaders need to remove themselves from the abuser emotionally and look at the facts. They need to listen to the cries of children and vow to lay down their lives to protect them. They need to always report allegations of abuse to authorities and not speak to the accused about it. Trust us that you will always leave those meetings second guessing yourself, having sympathy for the abuser, and wondering how such a good child could be so mistaken as to what happened to them.

Church leaders have a very long way to go. Churches continue to be ripe for abusers. The harvest is plentiful and the workers are naive. My prayer is that, for the sake of our children, we wise up and learn from cases like the PA Catholic scandal.

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