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Area Catholics on Pa. grand jury report: ‘It’s sad … heartbreaking’

At Sunday Mass, area Catholics grapple with another grand jury report alleging widespread clergy sex abuse.

Churchgoers leave the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul after Sunday Mass.
Churchgoers leave the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul after Sunday Mass.Read moreWilliam Bender

Anna Downey didn't know what to expect when she attended her first Sunday Mass following the release last week of a grand jury report alleging that child sex abuse perpetrated by priests had occurred – and in many cases was covered up by church leaders – in every Roman Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania.

The 28-year-old was encouraged when the Rev. Ken Brabazon Jr. confronted the issue directly in his homily during the 11 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, stressing the need for accountability.

"I love my faith. I will not leave my church," said Downey, a lifelong Catholic from New York City who was in town for a concert. "But things need to change. I'm glad that finally it's being addressed."

As agents in the state Attorney General's Office were working through the weekend to field a surge of new calls to its clergy-abuse hotline, Catholics here were still reeling Sunday from the grand jury's findings.

>> READ MORE: Sex-abuse hotline calls surge after grand jury report

The nearly 900-page report, released Tuesday by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, detailed child rape and molestation by clergy dating to the 1940s in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It accused 301 "predator priests" of abusing more than 1,000 children – with bishops transferring abusive priests and concealing the crimes from police and the public.

The Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown dioceses were not included in the report because previous grand juries had investigated their clergy sex-abuse cases.

Bob Hallahan, who attended Sunday Mass at the cathedral, said the report was another "wake-up call" and a reminder that evil can infiltrate any institution.

"There's bad everywhere," Hallahan said. "There are evil things that people do, even clergy. They need to be held accountable."

"It's sad," said his wife, Joanne. "It's hard for all Catholics."

Brian Koble, a father of four from Pittsburgh who was visiting Philadelphia for business, said he believed that the church had largely addressed the grand jury's findings.

"It's over, and best practices have been put into place," Koble said after Mass. "Going forward, the experience of the Catholic Church will be what I have always experienced it to be, which is a loving, caring, faith-filled place."

The Diocese of Pittsburgh figured prominently in the report, which included details of a 1970s pedophile and child pornography ring among clergy there. It alleged that priests whipped victims and took photos of one boy as he posed like Jesus on the cross.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh's Bishop David Zubik pushed back against a call for his resignation and said on ABC's This Week that the diocese has "followed every single step" needed for responsible action after allegations of child sexual abuse. The report accused Zubik of not reporting credible allegations.

"The church of Pittsburgh today is not the church that's described in the grand jury report," Zubik told host George Stephanopoulos.

>> READ MORE: Priests ran child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese: State AG's grand jury report

"I don't have an issue with my faith," Coonts said. "I have an issue with the church."

Coonts suggested mandatory counseling in seminary for aspiring priests.

"Something is not getting addressed," he said. "Something is missing."

On Thursday, the Vatican released a statement that Pope Francis "understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirit of believers, and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the church and in all of society."

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, in his column published Friday, wrote that the only acceptable responses to the alleged abuses outlined in the grand jury report "are grief and support for the victims, and comprehensive efforts to ensure that such things never recur. And anger. Anger is also a righteous and necessary response – but it needs to be an anger that bears good fruit; an anger guided by clear thinking, prudence, and a desire for real justice."

Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan distributed a letter Sunday to be read at all Masses, calling the Pennsylvania grand jury report "painful" and "an important reminder of shameful past failings in the church — including in our own diocese."

Downey, as she left Sunday Mass, said she hopes the church will "learn from history."

"It's sad and its heartbreaking," she said. "As someone that has been in the church my whole life, I feel so bad for the people that were affected by this. A lot of people think the answer is to not come to church anymore. I feel like we need forgiveness more than ever at this point, but also the bishops need to be held accountable."

This article contains information from the Associated Press.