After 18 years of chronicling the horrors of clergy abuse within the Pennsylvania Catholic Church, including cover-ups that helped hundreds of predator priests avoid a single day in jail, the church may finally be due a round of applause.
Namely, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
I usually have fierce criticism for this institution that serves 1.3 million Catholics across five counties. Today, I urge congratulations. It has shown itself capable of something that has been tragically elusive for years regarding children harmed by the scourge of abuse.
It happened a few days ago in a Bucks County courtroom. And apparently, coincidentally, the gesture came the day before the official naming of Archbishop Nelson Pérez as the successor to Charles Chaput.
Former St. Titus of East Norriton altar boy Michael McDonnell, now 51, was seated in court with Common Pleas Court Judge Rea Boylan at the bench and Deputy District Attorney Matthew Lannetti there for the commonwealth.
The archdiocese’s presence was made plain in the form of a letter to the prosecutor, which the judge had before her.
Everyone was there because McDonnell, of Bristol, had been convicted a decade earlier of misspending about $100,000 in therapy payments from the archdiocese he had sought after having been abused by a priest. He used the church’s money instead for other purposes. McDonnell said he had ripped off the church out of anger. He was a kid, he said, when the Rev. Francis Trauger assaulted him. He’d been left traumatized.
For the fraud, McDonnell was jailed for about a year. He was still on probation while seated in Boylan’s courtroom last month, a man on a $40,000-a-year wage, and making regular restitution payments to the church on a balance that totaled $94,315.69.
I’d written about McDonnell late last year. He was a poster child for how uneven justice had been for these poor kids who’d become damaged adults.
Trauger, his abuser from when he was a preteen, was walking free even after Bucks County authorities in September charged the onetime priest for more recent allegations involving another victim. Trauger had been arrested after a lifetime of no prosecutions, but still, at age 74, didn’t so much as have to post a penny in bail ahead of his planned trial this coming April.
So imagine my shock when I heard what the archdiocese requested of the criminal justice system.
“Earlier this year,” Msgr. Daniel J. Kutys wrote to Bucks County prosecutors, in a letter publicly filed, “Michael McDonnell participated in the Independent Reparation and Restitution Program (IRRP) being conducted now for victims of clerical sexual abuse within the Archdiocese.”
McDonnell had filed a claim last year through a fund the church set up in the wake of a damning 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report into abuse at dioceses across Pennsylvania. It was the church’s preferred alternative to a change in state law that would have permitted the filing of civil lawsuits.
McDonnell received a settlement for an undisclosed sum.
But there was more.
He also used another resource available through the fund: He reached out to Lynn Shiner, an independent victim advocate who’d been placed in charge of counseling and otherwise assisting people filing claims.
Shiner, 59, is a woman who understands trauma.
Shiner’s 10-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and 8-year-old son, David, were murdered 25 years ago this past Christmas by her ex-husband. Stabbed to death. She told me about the recent anniversary when we spoke about McDonnell a few days ago.
“I was supportive of them vacating that order,” Shiner said of McDonnell’s restitution obligations. “That’s really the true spirit of healing the community — when the archdiocese can step back and see the impact that this had, and how vacating that order would help him tremendously with moving forward.”
She had McDonnell write a letter while she advocated within the archdiocese for him.
“As a result of her meeting with Mr. McDonnell, Ms. Shiner has recommended to us the forgiveness of Mr. McDonnell’s debt to the Archdiocese,” the monsignor in charge of administration for Chaput continued in his letter to prosecutors. “Mr. McDonnell was also in touch with us, and explained the personal and professional burdens that the ongoing restitution creates for him.”
“In response to this,” Kutys continued, “I am asking formally that the remaining restitution due to the Archdiocese by Michael McDonnell be forgiven.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that this same institution used to treat victims very differently. Aggressively, to put it nicely. What a difference 18 years makes, thanks to public disclosures at the hands of prosecutors.
McDonnell was relieved when he left court. At home later that night, he heard rumors swirl that a new archbishop would be named the next day. It felt surreal.
“There were no clean hands here,” he said. “It was one of those moments where I started to realize that this chapter, this nightmare in my life, is really coming to a close. ... I’m grateful to the archdiocese. I’m grateful that they have shown mercy.”