Three years ago, when Pope Francis visited our city and stood at Lincoln's lectern on Independence Mall, he posed a deceptively simple question: "What are we going to do?"
He was asking what we were going to do for the marginalized in our society — the immigrant, the homeless, the hungry, the uneducated — and he spoke of how "God weeps" for sexual-abuse victims. It felt like this man, the embodiment of the church, was breaking through that institution, even if only symbolically, and getting down to what really mattered: the simplicity of faith. Of kindness. Of doing better for our people.
That question kept returning to my mind when I read Tuesday's grand jury report about 70-plus years of clerical abuse in Pennsylvania: "What are we going to do?"
At least, that's what was on my mind when I wasn't trying to process the fresh horrors in the report, which investigated allegations of sexual abuse by priests in six dioceses in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown were not included: They've already had their own devastating reports.
But in Harrisburg, Allentown, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Greensburg, and Erie, the details of what more than 300 priests did to the children in their care — and what the leaders of my church did to cover it up — are horrifying. One thousand kids abused, a conservative number, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. The terrible arithmetic of the statute of limitations: Only two priests can still be prosecuted. It's a stark representation of the most frustrating truth in this decades-long crisis:
No one is being held accountable.
That's what I've come to learn in 15 years of covering this scandal. And you learn that through meeting person after person who carries the full weight of this horror and betrayal. For many of us raised in it, the Catholic Church has a unique kind of staying power. As much as you wander — or walk, or run — away from it at times, it can feel, as one victim said, encoded in your DNA.
And that's why it's so hard for victims of this kind of abuse to live with the knowledge that the shepherds of their faiths, the human representations of God on Earth, could treat them so horribly. As one victim told my colleagues Tuesday, it's "the murder of a soul." And I've seen, again and again, across the country, how that murder plays out.
A man who left for work one day and laid down on a desolate stretch of railroad tracks and waited for the train. After his death, his wife told me he had endured years of torment after being abused by his parish priest.
A man who wasted away in a nursing home, who had fallen into mental illness that doctors suspected was a direct result of his abuse by a priest. He believed that angels talked to him. And he believed, to his dying day, that his church was eventually going to help him. It did not.
A man, one of the only black children in his East Falls parish, who already felt alienated and alone in his church when a priest abused him. He told me he believed it was because of the color of his skin. When I met him, decades later, he still seemed to shrink into himself.
Their trauma, and the trauma of so many others, never led to real reform. That's sickening.
With this report, Pennsylvania becomes the only state to have fully investigated the scandal statewide. It's a dubious distinction. It feels like a breaking point. Reading the report, its overwhelming nature will make you feel that abusive priests aren't the outliers. It feels like the good ones are.
Never has the story been told with such scope, with such sweeping indictments of the church in a whole state. If there's ever going to be a reckoning for this church — a real reckoning, not just a recitation of the horror and a flurry of halfhearted, lawyer-vetted apologies — it has to happen now. This is a moment for our state to adopt every single one of the reforms the grand jury recommended, including modifying the statute of limitations to allow a two-year window for more victims to come forward. It's a moment for our nation to follow that lead. And if church leaders cower from that, and parishioners and politicians allow them to, then the church has no authority in public life.
What are we going to do? Francis, whose record has only partially backed up his Philly pledge to do better for victims, asked us that as we all flocked to that lawn three years ago. Now we must demand answers from our leaders.
And after this report, if church leaders don't answer the question in the right way — if they don't commit to rooting out this evil themselves, instead of waiting for politicians to pry it open; if they don't make justice for victims the center of their practice of faith; if this report doesn't mark the beginning of a true new direction for the church — that feeling the Holy Father inspired on that lawn will grow smaller and smaller. Small enough that we should walk away.