The Archbishop of Washington’s public relations strategy backfires

Six dioceses, 300 priests and 1,000 victims. Those numbers were splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in America, from the New York Times to the Bangor Daily News. The publication of a Pennsylvania grand jury report chronicling clerical sex abuse and episcopal cover-ups in that state has plunged the American Church into the worst crisis it’s faced since the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation of the early 2000s.

In fact, this may be an even greater scandal. “Spotlight” set off a domino effect that revealed widespread abuse in virtually every diocese in the country. These revelations cost them $3 billion, and at least 19 have filed for bankruptcy. Thousands became disillusioned with the Church and abandoned the faith. The “paedophile priest” became a trope in popular culture, which contributed to a precipitous fall in vocations.

The laity could at least assume the bishops would stop covering for abusers. The worst offenders, such as Boston archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law, were removed from their posts altogether. “Never again,” we were promised.

What makes the Pennsylvania report so devastating is the realisation that, despite the publication of documents including the Dallas Charter, abusers are still evading accountability. On August 16, two priests – one who was charged by police for child sex abuse, the other for drug and theft charges – were removed from active ministry in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Lay people inevitably ask, “Why only now?”

Worse yet is the possibility that the Archbishop of Washington (and Theodore McCarrick’s successor) Cardinal Donald Wuerl took too lax an attitude towards abusers in Pittsburgh, where he was bishop from 1988 to 2006. According to the grand jury report, Wuerl recommended one Fr Ernest Paone to the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, despite the priest’s long record of abuse allegations.

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