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Catholic Leaders Haven’t Done Anywhere Near Enough About Their Child Abuse Culture


“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the Truth. Anyone who listens to the Truth hears my voice.” Pilate answered, “Truth? What does that mean?”—John 18:37-38

On Tuesday, a truth long suppressed finally emerged from darkness. A nearly 900-page report released by a statewide grand jury in Pennsylvania chronicled more than a thousand instances of physical and sexual abuse by hundreds of priests in dioceses around the commonwealth.

Despite the gruesome and graphic individual instances of abuse the report recounts, its ultimate condemnation of the Catholic Church came by laying bare a corrupt culture that pervaded the church for decades, and some (including this author) argue persists to this day. Far too many church leaders, including some still in positions of authority, saw a greater “sin” in public scandal than in the violation of young children, and failed in both their moral and legal obligations to do everything possible to protect innocent lives.

In so doing, they placed a stain on the church, and its leaders, that will long endure.

In reviewing the report, I focused primarily on the Diocese of Allentown. Having grown up outside Allentown, I know the area, and the diocese, well. I received the sacraments of initiation—baptism, First Communion, and confirmation—there, attended diocesan schools for all of my elementary and high school education, and still attend Mass in the area when home visiting family.

I have no firsthand experience of abuse, nor of any of the abusers. Of the 37 Allentown priests named in the report, and the 52 published on the diocese’s own website, I recognize only one name, and recall meeting none. In a few cases, the priests named died before I was born.

I never experienced any improper, or even inappropriate, contact with priests or religious workers during my youth, whether at school, as an alter server, or in other venues. I also saw priests taking steps—leaving the office door of the rectory open during meetings, for instance—designed both to protect me from inappropriate situations, and to protect them from unfounded allegations.

Sadly, their colleagues and superiors undermined the efforts of these good priests to protect children from harm.

‘Whatever You Did to the Least of These’

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. —Matthew 25:40

A priest or religious authority figure could easily have taken advantage of my innocence and naiveté as a child. While I only encountered trustworthy, honest, and supportive priests, others’ experiences scarred them for the rest of their lives.

In at least one case, a boy’s experience with a priest ultimately cost him his life. The grand jury report recounts the case of Joey, a boy in the Allentown Diocese. A priest, Rev. Edward Graff, violated him so violently that he damaged Joey’s back.

In 2007, Joey wrote that “Father Graff did more than rape me. He killed my potential and in so doing killed the man I should have become.” Graff did all that, and more: The back injury from the encounter with Graff led Joey to develop an addiction to painkillers that resulted in his premature death.

Meanwhile, church officials seemed to worry less about the safety of boys like Joey and more about lawsuits from victims. In 1994, the bishop of Allentown at the time, Thomas Welsh, wrote to the supervisor of an order monitoring Graff about a disturbing development:

An individual came forward recently and reported that he had had some difficulties with Father Graff in the past. I know that you will appreciate the reasons for my concern, since the matter presents both your Congregation and the Diocese of Allentown with the potential of legal liability for anything untoward which may occur in the course of Father Graff’s ministry in Amarillo [Texas].

The Catholic Church teaches of the difference between perfect and imperfect contrition. Whereas the former focuses on the harm done to the victim, the latter emphasizes fear of consequences and punishment as motivation for forgiveness. Welsh’s worry about “legal liability for anything untoward,” and his silence for the victims themselves, epitomizes the Catholic Church’s imperfect contrition towards clerical sexual abuse.

Roots of the Modern Abuse Scandal

The modern clerical abuse scandal in the American Catholic Church dates to 1985. That June, the National Catholic Reporter published its first detailed expose on abuse by priests. The issue also highlighted problems within the church hierarchy regarding its response—warnings that seem eerily prescient in light of subsequent revelations:

  • “All too often, complaints against the priest involved are disregarded by the bishops, or the priest is given the benefit of a doubt.”
  • “Frequently, local bishops exhibit little concern for the traumatic effects these molestations have on the boys and their families – even though mental disturbances and, in one recent case, suicide, have followed such molestations.”
  • “Only legal threats and lawsuits seem capable of provoking some local bishops into taking firm actions against the priests. In some cases reported here, the priests, once identified for their offenses, have been moved to other parishes and again placed in positions of responsibility.”

One month prior to the Reporter’s expose, three priests presented a 92-page report to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regarding clerical abuse. The bishops, and then-Pope John Paul II, largely ignored these reports. Garry Wills’ “Papal Sin,” published months before the Boston Globe’s coverage of that archdiocese’s abusive clergy became an international scandal, presaged it by analyzing the church’s “structures of deceit,” including its sordid history of covering up sexual abuse.

Why, as a middle-aged man, must I read about how the Catholic Church still has not come clean about the full depths of a scandal that first became public as I completed kindergarten?

‘Will Not Necessarily Be a Horrendous Trauma’

The Catholic Church did not just let down the victims of sexual abuse. As the grand jury report makes painfully clear, it let down the abusers as well. In 1982, a priest called the diocesan chancery to report an “unfortunate incident” regarding Rev. Michael Lawrence. Called into the chancery to explain himself, Lawrence confessed: “Please help me. I sexually molested a young boy.”

The priest-investigator ordered Lawrence to a treatment facility. That investigator’s handwritten notes on the incident, included in their entirety in the grand jury report, prompt no small amount of rage as I type them:

When I called Downingtown [the treatment facility], the doctor informed me that it would be most important to give the family an opportunity to ventilate. She said they should be assured that the matter is being taken very seriously. She also said that the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma for the boy, but he should be given the opportunity to talk it out. (Emphasis mine.)

Less than two years later, Lawrence—who himself had asked for help to stop molesting children—was back teaching at a Catholic high school.

Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,” your sin remains.”—John 9:40-41

I cannot even begin to comprehend the pain—physical, emotional, and psychological—that survivors of clerical sexual abuse have endured, in many cases every day of their lives. But I saw that insular culture within the Catholic Church up close at a very young age.

For roughly three decades, my father, Ronald Jacobs, worked for the Diocese of Allentown in an administrative capacity. His name does not appear in the grand jury report. I do not believe he had any involvement with accusations of clerical abuse; however, not having any substantive contact with my father since high school, I can make no categorical assertions.

In the fall of 1992, my father prepared to remarry into his third marriage. Approximately six weeks after receiving his second annulment—this one for defective consent upon the part of the petitioner (i.e., my father)—he planned to marry one of the several women he had dated while awaiting the civil divorce and Catholic annulment from his marriage to my mother.

Finding this behavior more than a little incongruous for a person employed by the diocese, particularly as I prepared for my own confirmation, I (aged 13 at the time) requested a meeting with Welsh to discuss the matter.

In that meeting, Welsh effectively washed his hands of the case. The neighboring Diocese of Scranton had processed my father’s annulment, which purportedly avoided conflict-of-interest allegations. As to my father’s re-marriage so soon after receiving an annulment that placed blame for his prior marriage’s dissolution squarely on his shoulders, Welsh said he would defer to the judgment of Msgr. John Murphy, the priest performing the ceremony.

Rapists Get Reassigned

Welsh, who retired as bishop in 1997 and died in 2009, featured prominently in the grand jury report. As noted above, he wrote a letter about “the potential for legal liability” regarding Graff that said nothing about the need to protect young children.

When she tried to confess the abuse she suffered decades previously, he responded with four words: ‘Don’t say the name.’

In the late 1980s, Welsh wrote a separate letter to the bishop of Orlando regarding a priest, Rev. Edward Ganster. He admitted to his brother bishop that Ganster’s problems “were at least partially sexual and led to my decision that I could not re-assign him.” Instead, Welsh and the Diocese of Allentown gave Ganster, who went through the process of laicization, an employment reference.

The end result sounds like a cruel joke. Thanks to the reference from Welsh, Ganster—whom Welsh admitted suffered from sexual deviancy—received a job at, of all places, Walt Disney World, where he remained employed for 18 years. During his employment at Disney World, the diocese received further allegations of sexual abuse against Ganster dating to his time as a priest. The diocese (then under a new bishop) did not report those allegations to the district attorney until 2007, two decades after Ganster went on “sick leave” due to allegations of misconduct.

The grand jury’s report reveals something about the judgment of the man who married my father for the third time. During the 1980s, a woman named Julianne tried to report abuse she suffered in high school. At the time, the priest she accused, Rev. Francis Fromholzer, remained in active ministry. But when she tried to confess the abuse she suffered decades previously to Murphy, he responded with four words: “Don’t say the name.”

Then as now, Msgr. John Murphy remains pastor of St. Thomas More Church, one of the largest and most prominent parishes in the Diocese of Allentown.

Young Woman Who Reported Abuse Just Abused Further

The incident with Murphy represented merely one example of decades of denial from the Catholic Church about the abuse Julianne endured. (Through his attorneys, Fromholzer gave the grand jury a statement denying the abuse allegations.)

One of Julianne’s friends, whom the report does not name, also testified before the grand jury about abuse she alleged that Fromholzer inflicted. When she told the principal (and fellow priest) at her high school—my alma mater—that Fromholzer, her religion teacher, had assaulted her, the principal said he would expel her from school. The principal then made Julianne’s friend tell her father—an alcoholic and abusive parent—“the made-up story that you said about the priest.”

Her father did not believe her and proceeded to drag her home, yelling at her and slapping her along the way. When they finally got home, she was beaten more by her father, this time with a belt so that the belt buckle would strike her.

Julianne herself faced decades of willful ignorance from the Catholic Church to her plight. In addition to the incident with Murphy, she tried to tell another priest in the 1980s about her abuse two decades prior. The priest said, “I don’t want to hear it.”

After the Boston Globe exposed the clerical abuse scandal in 2002, Julianne felt she had to expose her abuser, who remained in active ministry, and reported her abuse to the diocese. The diocese and its attorneys responded by conducting their own investigation—not just of the priest, but also of Julianne. The grand jury report describes a document sent to two diocesan priests examining the matter by the diocese’s attorney, which contained disclosures from an informant:

This informant told the diocese that she had been the closest of friends with Julianne in high school and that they shared every secret. She reported that Julianne had once danced as a go-go dancer in the 1960’s and that she believed her to be sexually active….She believed it possible that Julianne was one of the girls who had an affair with a coach at Central Catholic [High School]. The informant reported that Julianne also had a family member once go to prison.

In response to allegations of abuse from a victim, the diocese saw fit to try “accusing the accuser”—in modern parlance, “slut-shaming” someone abused at the tender age of 14. The memo from the diocese’s lawyer attempts to use a coach’s alleged “affair” with a pupil—then as now, a crime for the teacher—to impugn the integrity of the student.

Failing Upward in the Worst Way

As to the recipients of this lurid memo, one of them saw no adverse effects from these reprehensible investigatory tactics. In fact, he did quite well for himself. He’s now the bishop.

A trip to Pennsylvania planned prior to the release of Tuesday’s report means I will have occasion to attend Mass in the Diocese of Allentown this weekend. At those Masses, priests will read to the faithful a letter from the bishop in question, Alfred Schlert.

The letter sounds empathetic. It apologizes for the abuses, for both the sins of commission and omission—“when those in the Church did not live up to Christ’s call to holiness, and did not do what needed to be done”—and recognizes the justifiable anger on the part of the survivors and the faithful as a whole.

But Schlert would have saved himself some time, and done the faithful much more good, with a shorter missive: “I hereby resign as bishop, effective immediately.”

‘I Was Just Following Orders’ Is No Excuse

When asked about the report—specifically the allegations that Schlert knew of abusive priests, yet did not do enough to remove them from ministry and alert the proper authorities—a diocesan spokesman claimed that Schlert was “not in a position of authority on such matters” before becoming bishop last year. To which one can offer perhaps the only logical response: YOU STILL DON’T GET IT.

Schlert should go, as should any bishop who failed to do everything within his power to protect innocent children from predator priests.

Apart from its general absurdity, Schlert’s argument fails on multiple fronts. First, the Nuremburg Trials more than seven decades ago—which involved similarly heinous crimes as those described in the grand jury report, albeit on a much larger scale—established the principle that “I was just following orders” doesn’t cut it.

Second, Schlert and the diocese did not report Julianne’s allegations against Fromholzer to the district attorney until 2009, seven years after it first learned of the case. Irrespective of his lack of ultimate authority within the diocese, Schlert could have notified civil investigators about the matter, but he did not. The silence suggests Schlert, like the diocese itself, remained more concerned by a lawsuit Julianne filed against the diocese than about whether Fromholzer would abuse again.

Third, the grand jury report includes no record of Schlert having formally recommended harsher punishments than the diocese ultimately meted out. In at least one other case, diocesan priest-investigators warned of priests who remained a threat, and advocated for their expulsion from any public ministry. If Schlert had concerns that his superiors had not gone far enough to combat abusive priests, he could have memorialized them, either in diocesan records, or in his own personal files. The grand jury report includes no evidence that he did so.

Based on both the record in the grand jury report and his feeble responses to same, Schlert has little moral authority to lead a flock of hundreds of thousands of Catholics. He should go, as should any bishop who failed to do everything within his power to protect innocent children from predator priests.

Zero Tolerance Requires Mass Firings

The USCCB claims it has a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding abuse, enacted following the 2002 disclosure of the clerical abuse scandal in Boston. Dioceses report offenders to the police, and perpetrators are removed from ministry.

Decades after the clerical sexual abuse scandal began, an unwillingness to face its full implications remains.

But a true “zero-tolerance” policy would extend to the culture of abuse as well—the priests and bishops who aided and abetted the abusers for years, and in many cases decades. The USCCB has shown little interest in pursuing such a policy, likely because doing so would implicate many, if not most, of the church’s current leaders.

One of USCCB’s own former heads—Timothy Cardinal Dolan—faced his own mini-scandal regarding clerical abuse. In 2013, documents revealed that the man whom “60 Minutes” had profiled two years earlier as the antidote to the church’s crisis of confidence had, while archbishop of Milwaukee, sheltered $57 million in diocesan funds for “an improved protection…from any legal claim and liability” made by victims of clerical abuse.

The scandal has left lingering questions about literal saints. The church canonized John Paul II in 2014, but the Vatican’s initial unwillingness to tackle sexual abuse head-on in the 1980s and 1990s left a lasting scar on his papacy, and wounds that have yet to heal.

Even today, decades after the clerical sexual abuse scandal began, an unwillingness to face its full implications remains. Of the six dioceses covered by the grand jury report, the bishop of only one testified in person before the grand jury; the other five bishops sent written statements. Particularly given that the USCCB recently adopted a new missal for Mass restoring the original, stronger translation of the Penitential Rite—Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa (“Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”)—the unwillingness of bishops to offer their apologies to the state via the grand jury in person seems strikingly callous.

Is Change Finally Coming This Time?

Despite all the horrors recounted in the grand jury report, and the unnecessary pain caused by church leaders’ failure to respond forcefully to predator priests, change is finally coming. Even though the bishops have fallen far short on policing the leaders who kept abusive priests in ministry, the “zero tolerance” policy on abusive priests themselves should end recidivism among the clergy.

The report hints at glimmers of hope among the darkness. In the case of Lawrence—the priest who asked for help after molesting a child, yet was assigned to a high school fewer than two years later—the document describes how threats of legal action by the victim’s father got Lawrence removed from active ministry. It also includes a note describing an incident where the same victim’s father visited the chancery, “accompanied by his pastor, Joe Smith,” to complain about the treatment of Lawrence.

The grand jury report has shone a bright spotlight into dark corners of the church in Pennsylvania. Hopefully it will remain there until all its leaders are held to account.

The pastor, Msgr. Joseph P.T. Smith, served as my pastor for the first seven years of my life, and returned to my home parish in 2007 as a retired priest in residence. While he did not serve in the same parish as Lawrence at the time of the 1982 incident, he was transferred there subsequently, and—according to the memo—ministered to the victim and his family.

I know not whether Smith did enough to represent the victim and his family, or to protect innocent lives from Lawrence. Confidentiality and the sacramental seal of confession mean that I likely will never know all the details, nor should I. But the public record makes clear that Smith did something, at a time when the chancery staff seemed more concerned that the victim’s father was “very difficult to deal with,” and getting out of what they described as a “sticky” situation, rather than ministering to victims—or removing Lawrence from ministry entirely.

As someone who went into that chancery myself to confront a bishop, I know how much it meant to have my pastor there to represent me. Smith stood up for one of his parishioners, and took a not-insignificant risk in doing so.

By representing one of his flock before the diocese, Smith gave to one victim what most have sought first and foremost, the one thing that for many, the Catholic Church refused for years, if not decades, to provide them: Acknowledgement of the crimes committed, and actions to ensure offenders remain away from innocent children—permanently.

The Catholic Church has made progress on these grounds. But the victims, and the faithful as a whole, deserve far more. The grand jury report has shone a bright spotlight into dark corners of the church in Pennsylvania. Hopefully it will remain there until all its leaders are held to account for the parts they played in this black mark on the church’s history.