Amid scrutiny, lingering woes for church
Donations from the faithful are down after state grand jury report in what may be a new status quo as federal, state authorities investigate around the U.S.
Karen Votta is a “born and bred” Catholic who felt herself drifting from the church as the “Spotlight” sex abuse scandal exploded out of Boston in 2002.
Despite her disappointment, the Bethlehem woman says she continued to attend Mass occasionally and send contributions to the church.
But the lurid Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August, exposing 301 allegedly abusive priests and more than 1,000 victims in six dioceses across the state, made Votta question the church — but not her belief in Jesus — even more deeply.
“I am Catholic, although I don’t know why I keep sticking around,” Votta said. “The church just keeps making it harder and harder to be a good Catholic. My whole Catholic family has drifted away.”
Revelations of sexual misconduct by priests and cover-ups by their superiors have not only damaged the relationship of laity like Votta to the church, but also appear to be cutting into weekly collections as well — impacts that one study suggests may be permanent. And while it is too early to know how deep the harm will be, the scandal will remain front and center in Pennsylva-
nia and across the country well into 2019, leaving a wound that may take a long time to heal. Consider:
■ The FBI is interviewing sex abuse survivors and has put Pennsylvania dioceses and the U.S. Conference of Bishops on notice that they should not destroy potentially relevant documents.
■ Fourteen states have undertaken action to conduct a Pennsylvania-style grand jury investigation of Catholic dioceses in their jurisdiction.
■ Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro says attorneys general from 40 states have spoken to him or his top deputy about the investigation, suggesting more investigations may be coming.
■ The clergy sex abuse hotline that Shapiro set up has received 1,400 calls, some with potentially new information.
“A number of these calls have interest to us,” said Shapiro spokesman Joe Grace.
■ Payouts to survivors from diocesan compensation funds likely will begin in 2019. While the dioceses say they will not use parish collections to finance the payouts, they will draw down resources, such as reserve funds and real estate, and incur new costs in interest payments on compensation fund loans.
Catholics may be signaling their disapproval with their wallets. Pastors have reported to the diocese that collections are “down slightly” since the grand jury report came out, Allentown Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said.
Attendance at Mass, he said, has held steady.
Catholics such as Anthony LaPedula of Allentown said the revelations were upsetting, but would not get between him and his faith.
“I still have my faith and most of the Catholics that I know do, too,” said LaPedula, who continues to go to Mass.
The church will have to manage the situation in the midst of a long decline in its ranks. According to Gallup, Catholic Church attendance has fallen from 45 percent in 20052008 to 39 percent in 2014-2017. In 1955, attendance was 75 percent, it said.
Kerr said some of the faithful remain “understandably angry” about clergy sexual abuse.
“Others have told us that Bishop [Alfred] Schlert’s policy of immediate removal of accused priests, immediate notification of law enforcement and transparency in cooperation with law enforcement is reassuring to them, and gives them hope that the church is taking appropriate action to eliminate abuse and keep children safe,” Kerr said.
Schlert reaffirmed his personal commitment in a statement last week.
If the scope of the grand jury report shocked the faithful, the investigation ordered by William McSwain, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, could be even worse. McSwain in October asked all of the nation’s bishops to preserve personnel records and any documentation relating to sexual abuse. Legal experts said if federal prosecutors can show church leaders systematically covered up for child molesters in the last five years, the dioceses could be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the law used to bring down the Mafia.
Survivors of priest sex abuse who were interviewed for the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation say they have been contacted in recent weeks by the FBI.
“It seemed that they want materials from anywhere at any time, no matter how old,” said David Cerulli, who was molested by a priest in Allentown in the 1960s.
Diana Vojtasek, a Reading area woman who alleged she was forced into a sexual relationship with former priest James Gaffney, said she reported to the FBI another woman who had recently come forward about her alleged abuse to her.
“They’re swimming in information,” Vojtasek said of the FBI.
According to the report, Gaffney was interviewed twice before the grand jury and admitted having sexual contact with at least one minor. He told the grand jurors that it was possible he had sex with other girls, but couldn’t remember, the report said. Authorities learned of the allegations long after the statute of limitations had expired, so Gaffney has not been charged.
Investigators have seen a “surge of new survivors” come forward across the country following the release of the Pennsylvania report, said Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The organization has been working closely with the FBI, he said.
“Several of our leaders have been contacted by U.S. attorneys and in some cases, like in Washington D.C., have worked together to set up hotlines and survivor support resources to not only encourage people to come forward but to provide them with help and information when they do,” he said.
With the criminal investigation continuing, dioceses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York are planning or already implementing compensation funds administered by third parties to provide a measure of accountability to survivors. The Allentown Diocese has said it will create a fund but has not released details such as how big the fund will be and when it will start compensating victims.
“We received many positive comments about our plan to provide an opportunity for victims and survivors to receive compensation in a compassionate forum as one aspect of their healing,” Kerr said.
Others, however, said they will continue to demand that state legislatures open a limitedtime window to survivors who are barred from suing the church because of statutes of limitations. State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, said he will continue to push for a bill next session in Harrisburg.
“I think 2019 will be a very big year,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of Child USA, which advocates for laws that protect children. She expects Pennsylvania and other states to pass windows.
If that happens, she said, it’s likely that the majority of lawsuits would be filed by those abused not by priests, but by family members and friends, coaches and others.
Hamilton said compensation funds are positive developments for survivors who do not want to go through the court system.
The vastness of the abuse, the church’s attempts to cover it up by reassigning priests, and the possibility of new allegations should be troubling to church officials thinking long term, according to researchers who studied the effects of Catholic Church scandals between 1980 and 2010 on church participation and giving. The study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Public Economics, found a persistent decline of 1.3 percent of all charitable giving occurred in ZIP codes where a scandal emerged. Religious participation of all kinds, including volunteering in religious programs, fell 3 percent for every scandal, it said.
The sharpest dropoffs in participation and giving come in the first couple years after a scandal, the researchers found. After that, they plateau but never return to prescandal levels, according to the study.
“We don’t see any recovery” from those losses, said one of the researchers, Ricardo PerezTruglia, an economics professor at UCLA Anderson.
The drop in church giving, based on analysis of IRS records from areas where Catholic church scandals occurred, was estimated at $2.36 billion every year, it said. Meanwhile, citing figures from bishop-accountability.org, a watchdog group, the amount the church has spent settling lawsuits and paying legal costs over the last 40 years is $3 billion.
Despite the scandals and the money they cost, the researchers came across one item that should bring relief to the church. Religious beliefs are deeply ingrained, they found, so most people, even if they left the church in disgust, retained a belief in God and the afterlife.
Survivors of child sexual abuse hug in the Pennsylvania Capitol while awaiting legislation in October to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.