After months of legal challenges, Pennsylvania released this week the results of a sweeping grand jury report on abuse in the Catholic Church, revealing that at least 1,000 children had been abused by 300 priests and accusing senior church officials of covering up abuse complaints. A spokesperson for Pope Francis said in a statement Thursday: “the abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible… The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”
“There’s certainly nothing particularly unusual about the state of Pennsylvania. If it’s happening in rural towns in Pennsylvania, it’s basically happening everywhere. There are so many dioceses about which we know very little,” Terry McKiernan, the founder of BishopAccountability.org, tells TIME. “A national inquiry would solve that problem — and survivors and others have spoken for many years about the need for this.”
But only 10 other local attorney generals and grand juries across the U.S. have looked into the issue since 2002, and Pennsylvania is the only state to release reports on abuse in all of its dioceses, according to BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts organization that tracks clergy abuse cases. Only 40 of almost 200 dioceses in the country have publicly released lists of priests who were accused of abuse.
Ireland and Australia have conducted national investigations into the crisis. The Irish government report found that rape and molestation were “endemic” in schools operated by the Catholic Church, while Australia’s Royal Commission interviewed more than 8,000 abuse victims and referred 2,500 cases to police. Pope Benedict XVI apologized to victims of sexual abuse in Ireland in 2010, and the Vatican said in 2011 that it never discouraged bishops in Ireland from reporting sexual abuse to authorities. The Vatican said in 2017 that the Australian Royal Commission report “deserves to be studied seriously.
In the U.S., the federal government has left the issue to the states. Survivors and advocates have called for congressional hearings and a federal investigation from the Justice Department for years. So far, it hasn’t happened — and advocates tell TIME they’re skeptical it will happen now.
“There’s a reluctance — and there should be — to get involved in the practice of religion. The problem there is this has nothing to do with the practice of religion,” Peter Isely, an abuse victim and a founding member of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says. “What’s it going to take the Department of Justice to start a federal investigation?”
When asked whether the Department of Justice had considered opening an inquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, a spokesperson says: “We don’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations. Sorry.”
There have been a few other efforts to look at the issue on the federal level. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People to evaluate the “causes and context” of the crisis. That group commissioned John Jay College to collect statistics about sexual abuse in the church based on surveys completed by the dioceses. (The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to TIME’s request for an interview, but said in a previous statement: “We are committed to work in determined ways so that such abuse cannot happen.”)
“We, as the National Review Board, were at the discretion of what the bishops gave us. It has to be an independent board with authority to get to the bottom of it,” says Justice Anne Burke, who served as the interim chair of the National Review Board and now serves on Illinois Supreme Court. “There has to be an uprising by Catholics in every diocese across the country to require their attorney generals or district attorneys to review the documents.”
Michael Rezendes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting for the Globe on the sexual abuse crisis in Boston, said on the Today Show Wednesday that other attorney generals would find similar results to Pennsylvania if they were to take up the task.
“The story is the same — whether it’s Boston, or Pennsylvania, or Tuscon, or Los Angeles, or Ireland, Australia, Chile,” Rezendes said. “The depravity is the same, the criminality is the same and the cover up is the same.”
No state attorney generals have publicly signaled yet that they’ll follow Pennsylvania’s lead. But Isely and others hope the Pennsylvania report is a tipping point.
“This has reached a point of significance, and I hope leadership emerges. I wouldn’t have dreamed 10 years ago that this would happen in Pennsylvania,” he says. “But they listened and heard survivors.”
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