Grand Jury Reports Only Scratch the Surface
Septemver 7, 2023
By: Paige N. Eppenstein Anderson
I have a confession to make. Despite drifting away from the Catholic Church a few decades ago, I still read America: The Jesuit Review on a regular basis. There are days when I wonder why -- perhaps because I was partially educated by Jesuits? Or because of my deep Catholic cultural roots that just won't wither? These days I read with a newer lens as an abuse survivor, after finally recognizing/acknowledging the sexual, spiritual, and emotional abuse inflicted by a lay teacher at my Diocese of Allentown school, Msgr. Bornemann Memorial Central Catholic High School in Reading, PA.
With the survivor lens in mind, my curiosity was piqued by Kevin Clarke's article, "The Complicated Legacy of State investigations of the Catholic sex abuse crisis." I began reading with an open mind; after all, over the last three years, I have come to know numerous survivors whose stories were included in the PA Grand Jury Report (my high school and local parish were hubs for abusive clergy). Their stories laid bare the web of moral and ethical corruption in various Catholic dioceses in PA.
As I read further into the article, Clarke introduced Ms. Daly, a pastoral associate for a suburban Philadelphia parish. I found my jaw dropping as she noted that "people are jaded" and "We live in a sea of accusations and counter-accusations, news reports speaking to one reality while our parishes try to live something completely different. Who to believe? What to believe? Who knows?" The rhetorical question is even asked: "Why are they dragging this up again?"
The Grand Jury reports produced recently in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Maryland reveal the human stories behind the institutional bait and switch and rampant corruption. Sure, the church has put in place zero tolerance policies and annual safe environment trainings, as Ms. Daly noted. However, abusers still lurk in plain sight in parishes, diocesan non-profits, Catholic schools, and more -- participating in safe environment trainings and trying to blend into obscurity. This is exactly what my perpetrator did, evading any consequences for two and a half decades. The problem is more than just clergy, it is the systemic, poisonous culture of abuse in the Catholic Church coursing through the veins of the Body of Christ. As the poison spreads, it is absorbed by the entire Body which allows its members and leaders to turn a blind eye to a seemingly incurable illness.
I counter Ms. Daly and Peter Steinfels (who I coincidentally had as a professor at Boston College many years ago) with this: The Grand Jury reports scratch the surface and do not prepare us for the next generation/wave of victims/survivors who have yet to realize and disclose their abuse. Sure, new safeguards have identified some repeat offenders who perpetrated in the 1980s or 90s. But what about recent cases like Gregory Loughney in the Diocese of Scranton? While the Diocese quickly suspended Loughney, it is more of the same in terms of abusers slipping through psychological testing and safe environments training. This case happened in the last two years. And notably, while the Maryland Grand Jury Report highlighted three Catholic sisters (one that was blacked out, mind you), a few brothers, and some religious order priests, there are still many abusers or accused who continue to hide behind the convent/monastery/motherhouse walls and administrative smoke and mirrors, including my own perpetrator who is now a Catholic sister.
We often forget that education is a central mission for the Catholic Church. Over the years, Catholic schools have educated a high percentage of American Catholics (Dolan, 1987). While enrollment has declined over the decades, the prevalence and potential for educator sexual misconduct/abuse in Catholic schools remains unexplored.
Educator sexual misconduct has received more attention in the United States in recent years primarily through horrific news stories (Jeglic, 2023; Shakeshaft, 2004). Educator sexual misconduct includes behaviors that range from suggestive language and harassment to touching and full sexual intercourse (Jeglic, 2023). Approximately 56% of students targeted were high school students; in the 1980s and 1990s educator sexual misconduct was purportedly perpetrated by approximately 10% of educators (Jeglic, 2023; Shakeshaft, 2004).
That leaves open an important question: Do we really know the true scope and breadth of abuse perpetrated under the tent of Catholic institutions including Catholic schools or organizations? A study by Moulden et al. (2010) found that in their sample of 113 educator perpetrators, approximately 15% were also members of the Catholic clergy. If we consider the sheer number of Catholic sisters or priests teaching as well as lay teachers, then numbers are probably significantly under-reported in the United States.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, between 1980 and 1989 nearly 28 million students were enrolled in Catholic schools, averaging approximately 2.3 million students in any given year This meant around 7.4 million students enrolled in Catholic schools each year, with approximately 740,000 each year in high schools. Enrollment remained stable through the 1990s, with 26.5 million students and 6 million in Catholic high schools. Again, the average annual attendance was 2.6 million students and 600,000 a year were Catholic high schoolers. During this time period, opportunities expanded in the Church. For example, girls along with boys could become altar servers. More students became involved in youth ministry activities, CCD, and CYO sports. How many of these students found themselves as victims of educator sexual misconduct in Catholic schools or in other pastoral settings in the Church?
Where Grand Jury reports have fallen short, has been the almost exclusive focusing on "clergy"--which in Catholicism means priests. They are discounting other actors in the Catholic Church, when vocations to the priesthood and religious life continue to decline. More and more Church and school positions are filled by pastoral associates like Ms. Daly who are lay people serving the Church as their vocation.
Today, the age range of people who attended Catholic Churches and/or Catholic high schools in the 1980s and 1990s range from approximately 42 - 60 years old today. Why is this important? Victims of child sexual abuse often delay disclosing their abuse until they reach midlife (40s or 50s). Up to 20-30% of victims never disclose their abuse (ChildUSA, 2020; Jeglic, 2023; McElvaney, 2013, Pereda et al, 2022). That means new waves of victims, like myself, will inevitably emerge over the next 10-15 years or so. I doubt that those disclosures will end, given recent cases of educator sexual misconduct at Catholic high schools in PA (ex: Diocese of Allentown, Diocese of Harrisburg, and Archdiocese of Philadelphia). In fact, there is even a very recent case of Catholic educator sexual misconduct at the school where my own abuser taught after she joined religious life.
What the Grand Jury reports can do is open a window of acknowledgement and truth telling. Most people my age who have reported our abuse are barred from seeking criminal and civil remedies due to the statute of limitations (SOL) that reflect immediate disclosure. In Pennsylvania, as the article noted, SOL reformers have been battling reticent lawmakers for almost two decades to make change. Even after the PA Grand Jury report came out 5 years ago, lawmakers who line their coffers with donations from lobbyists like the PA Catholic Conference refuse to consider putting through legislation to establish a lookback window for abuse survivors with time barred claims. Now, 20+ years after the Dallas Charter and several years after Pope Francis' Vos Estis Lux Mundi (originally released in 2019 and updated in April 2023) pro moto outlined processes for reporting church leaders the cover up of abuse still continues. In the Diocese of Allentown, Bishop Alfred Schlert refused to take responsibility for my abuse at the hands of a lay teacher in one of his diocesan high schools in the 1990s. Instead, I learned through filing a Vos Estis report via the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (the metropolitan for Allentown) that Bishop Schlert punted any and all responsibility to my perpetrator's religious community, even though she was a lay employee of the Diocese of Allentown teaching at a Diocesan high school. Bishop Schlert quickly pawned my case off to the Sisters of Christian Charity rather than acknowledging the pain, investigating the claim further, or offering a restorative solution for navigating the lasting impact of the abuse on my life. To add insult to injury, the Sisters of Christian Charity and Diocese of Paterson would rather hide my abuser and quietly remove her from her roles as provincial council and executive director of a diocesan ministry (where she worked with vulnerable women and children) than acknowledge her wrongdoing. No one has reached out to me or even asked how I am doing. While she cannot be prosecuted for her crimes civilly or canonically right now, the Church is not following its promise to have concern for the victim.
This type of dismissive behavior is happening in 2023, not 30 years ago. The reality is clergy, lay, and religious perpetrate abuse or have perpetrated abuse years ago, despite the annual safe environments training. My life was shattered by my abuser, Sr. Ann Marie Paul, SCC. Ms. Daly, I am not jaded and I should be believed, even if it's inconvenient for the Church that I once loved.
Child USA. Delayed disclosure (2020). https://childusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Delayed-Disclosure-Factsheet-2020.pdf
Clarke, K. (2023, August 14). The complicated legacy of state investigations of the Catholic sex abuse crisis. America Magazine: A Jesuit Review. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2023/08/14/abuse-priests-attorney-general-reports-catholic-church-245841
Dolan, J. P. (1987). The American Catholic Experience: A history from colonial times to the present. Doubleday & Company.
Jeglic, E. (2023, June 21). Understanding delayed disclosure of Child sexual abuse. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/protecting-children-from-sexual-abuse/202306/understanding-delayed-disclosure-of-child-sexual
McElvaney, R. (2013). Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse: Delays, non-disclosure and partial disclosure. what the research tells us and implications for practice. Child Abuse Review, 24(3), 159–169. https://doi.org/10.1002/car.2280
Moulden, H. M., Firestone, P., Kingston, D. A., & Wexler, A. F. (2010). A description of sexual offending committed by Canadian teachers. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 19(4), 403–418. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2010.495046
Pereda, N., Contreras Taibo, L., Segura, A., & Maffioletti Celedón, F. (2022). An exploratory study on mental health, social problems and spiritual damage in victims of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and other perpetrators. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 31(4), 393–411. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2022.2080142
Pope Francis. Apostolic Letter in the form of “Motu Proprio” of the Supreme Pontiff Francis “Vos estis lux mundi” (Updated) (25 March 2023) | Francis. (2023, March 25). https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20230325-motu-proprio-vos-estis-lux-mundi-aggiornato.html
Shakeshaft, C. (2004). Educator sexual misconduct: A synthesis of existing literature. Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/educator-sexual-misconduct-synthesis-existing-literature
About the author
Paige Eppenstein Anderson, MTS, MA, ABD (she/her) believes in the power of the underdog to make positive change in the world. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Paige engaged in "academic therapy" studying Catholic sisters and their evolution after Vatican II. Paige now uses her background to advocate for statute of limitation reform in her home state of Pennsylvania. Paige and her family reside in Durham, NC.