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A Pennsylvania grand jury has issued an explosive report on decades of abuse carried out and covered up by six of the state’s Catholic dioceses. The report is nearly 900 pages, and covers abuses by more than 300 priests against over 1,000 victims over a period of 70 years. While the report was highly anticipated – for a time, some dioceses fought the investigation itself – its contents are shocking.
And while the individual instances of abuse are, truly, horrifying, the report is also an important reminder about the dynamics involved when abuse is institutionalized.
The grand jury wrote in its report, “we don’t think we got them all,” that is, the grand jury believes that due to the absence of record keeping of complaints and the reluctance of victims to come forward, there are more victims than it was able to identify. It is well known that, especially when victims are children, many factors are at play that suppress the victim from coming forward or, in some cases, acknowledging their own victimhood.
The grand jury also wrote that its investigation revealed a “playbook for concealing the truth.” There is little to be gained from the report if we fail to focus on the institutional structures that allowed abuse to occur and to keep that abuse hidden. It is not unique to the church or to any other institution, but the pattern is often the same. Rather than help victims and hold abusers accountable, leaders instead sought to avoid notoriety.
Thus, when abuse happens within an institution, the institution’s leaders responsibility for the actions of the abusers when they enable and protect perpetrators. That is what the grand jury found here. Higher-ranking officials protected each other, and buried reports of abuse. They took pity on abusers, expressing sympathy for their “difficulty” and “grief.” In some cases, they looked the other way, simply transferred abusers to other locations with access to similar victims, or used euphemisms to minimize the abuser’s conduct (for instance, characterizing rape as “inappropriate contact”).
Abuse is tragic, and that is only compounded when institutions create a system that suppresses accountability.
By Chris Markos