PITTSBURGH – In the wake of an explosive grand jury report that uncovered hundreds of cases of child abuse by Pennsylvania priests over the last several decades, a support group for victims of abuse and their family members called for reforms within the Catholic Church and the criminal justice system outside the offices of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh Monday.
Atop their list was a call for the resignation of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and all church officials who covered up abuse. They also want to expand the statute of limitations so prosecutions can happen decades after abuse, and copies of the grand jury report placed in the back of all churches in the Pittsburgh diocese.
Protests like the one staged by SNAP, which stands for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is “the only way that the church changes,” said Steve Spaner, a volunteer with the organization from Marthasville, Mo. The group plans to stage similar protests at the diocese offices in Erie and Greensburg this week.
Many of those present outside the diocese offices on Boulevard of the Allies were family members of those who were abused, or survivors who are still grappling with the effects of the abuse.
Mark Fuller, who traveled from New Canaan, Conn., said he was abused by a priest from Erie, and it caused him to “fail to launch” and struggle with his life in the decades since. He also explained that the Erie diocese offered a few hundred dollars for therapy and otherwise turned a blind eye. He said that Jesus Christ “would have flipped tables” at the revelations contained in the grand jury report released last week.
“We need to stand up and say, ‘What is going on here?’” Fuller said. “I would like justice done.”
The 900-page grand jury report released last week by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro examined allegations of abuse by more than 300 priests across the commonwealth since the 1940s, and identified more than 1,000 victims. The investigation covered six of the state’s eight dioceses, including Pittsburgh, Erie and Greensburg, and was the first report of its kind to look at abuse by priests on a state level. Among other findings, the report recounted in horrific detail the existence of a group of predatory priests within the Pittsburgh diocese who shared victims, manufactured child pornography and deployed sadism and violence when raping their victims.
The protest happened on the same day that Pope Francis offered a letter to Catholics admitting that the church failed to protect many victims and “looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such (abuses) from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”
Members of SNAP were not mollified, contending that the pontiff has actually done very little and has outlined few, if any, concrete reforms.
During the protest, the Rev. Msgr. Ron Lengwin, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, walked onto the sidewalk and offered a private meeting with Zubik to members of SNAP. They declined, saying they wanted the media to be present if such a meeting took place.
Lengwin defended the church, saying that it has changed.
“We had to learn some of the hard lessons,” he said. “As (Zubik) says, we’re not the church today that we were in the past.”
But standing nearby was Frances Sember, a Pittsburgh-area resident whose brother was abused by a priest. Holding a sign that said, “We Don’t Need Prayers, We Need Justice,” she accused the church of wanting to “silence us with their words.”
“But this won’t go away,” she added. “The raping of children is not healed by words.”