Necessary Clarifications

Fr. John Bonavitacola
Dear Friends,

In 2017 there were 1,207 allegations of child abuse by Pennsylvania public school employees. There were 280 reports alone in Philadelphia. In 2017, in the Catholic Church in all 50 US States and its territories, there were 24 allegations of abuse by Catholic priests. Six of the twenty-four allegations were determined to be substantiated and of those six, four were against the same priest. It would seem that child abuse by a priest is a thing of the past. But what about child abuse by Public School teachers?

The way I wrote that paragraph, though factually correct, is a bit of a spin job, even a hit on the Public Schools. The facts are that of the 280 accusations in Philadelphia only 18 were substantiated. That means many teachers, school personnel had to live the nightmare of being removed from the classroom, put on leave, had their good name and reputation tarnished and if they did return to the classroom, did so greatly weakened, always looking over their shoulder. This type of spin is exactly what the media and some prosecutors are doing to Catholic priests.

The PA Grand Jury Report was less than forthright on many fronts. There is lots of information left out and many factual errors and outlandish statements. That is by design as the Grand Jury Process is one-sided and meant to favor the Prosecutor’s case. The allegations of abuse were not actually all priests, some were deacons, seminarians and lay teachers, coaches and other lay staff. Please remember that of the 300 accused many of the allegations were unproven after investigations by Law Enforcement. Some allegations were reported by parents directly to Law Enforcement or Child Protective Services who did their own investigations and determined the allegation unsubstantiated. (Unsubstantiated describes an allegation for which an investigation is complete and the allegation has been deemed not credible/false based upon evidence gathered through the investigation). The media narrative leads you to believe that nothing has changed when in fact the number of new allegations drops off precipitously after 1990. Because the allegations were all so old no indictments or referrals for criminal prosecution were issued.

The Report covers 70+ years in six dioceses. Over that period of time how many priests in total served in those dioceses? If you do the math you can see that the number of priests accused was a small percentage of the overall number. Now even one case is too many, absolutely and malfeasance by Bishops is also unacceptable. But try to keep it all in perspective. Also, the report does not give the final determination of most of the cases or how they were handled. Some of the allegations were false. For instance, the priest who was accused of having a young person perform oral sex and then washing his mouth out with holy water was investigated by an FBI agent and the Vatican and independently both concluded it never happened. Or the priest who was accused of abusing a boy while on an airplane. Actually, the priest was flying the plane and the investigators determined it was impossible for the priest to have done what he was accused of while flying the plane without crashing it.

The 2011 Grand Jury Report in Philadelphia eventually mostly unraveled. The only national media that reported on the unraveling of the false allegations was Newsweek. (http://www.bigtrial.net/2016/12/detective-walsh-to-testify-jan5th-in.html#more) As an aside the Phila. District Attorney who very aggressively prosecuted the case is now in Federal Prison. The same for the former PA State Attorney General. Could it be that the current PA AG wants to distract from the corruption of his predecessor? When it comes to these types of investigations there are many, many motives and not all of them the pursuit of justice. The Church is an easy target: we are a large, very organized, we keep meticulous records, are heavily insured and have a horrendous track record on this issue.

I point this out not to diminish the actual abuse and cover-up that has taken place but to let you know some of what is in Grand Jury Reports or Law Enforcement Investigations are often cases from before 1990 and after 1990 you see a dramatic decline in new cases and in the way they are handled. The biggest change is that all credible allegations of sexual abuse are first turned over to Law Enforcement, the accused is immediately suspended and Parishes where the cleric served are publicly notified of the allegations. After the criminal investigation is completed, then the case goes to the Diocesan Review Board (every US Diocese has one). In our Diocese the review board consists of lay professionals who review and make determinations regarding any allegations against clergy. The makeup of this board includes a law enforcement officer, a licensed psychologist, a judge, a medical professional, a teacher and a parish pastor. Based on the Board’s recommendation the Bishop will either dismiss the cleric or if cleared of all allegations return him to ministry.

In the meantime, many Bishops are proving themselves to be cretins. We now see NY, NJ, Missouri, Nebraska, Florida, New Mexico, et.al., dioceses being subpoenaed. Why do they wait for a Prosecutor to come calling? Why not release all the cases with a complete narrative of what happened, how it was handled and all pertinent details? Memo to Bishops: CLEAR AWAY THE WRECKAGE OF THE PAST, NOW.

Just as I don’t want an entire class of people, namely public-school teachers convicted because of the crimes of a minority of teachers so too we should not convict every Catholic priest because of the crimes of some priests and the failures of some Bishops. Believe me, every one of us priests are filled with disgust at what some of our brothers have done.

Priests who commit child abuse are actually committing a form of incest, the worst crime know to humanity. They always need to be held accountable but in our desire for justice we have to take care not to become instruments of injustice.

Love, Fr. John B.

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