The Sherwood Desert Crew is pleased to meet you.

Examining the Past with a Critical Eye: The PA Grand Jury Report

I have been reviewing the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report over the last few days, and following the popular reaction to the Report with great interest. Because of my work as an attorney for abuse victims and survivors, I am interested in the contents of the Report and the evidentiary revelations it contains. But I am also interested in the Report itself, as a phenomenon. 

As to content: the Report provides detailed accounts of sexual abuse perpetrated by over three hundred sexually abusive priests spread across six Pennsylvania dioceses. It names those priests. It notes “over a thousand” identifiable victims, and estimates thousands more. It emphasizes over and over again that the leadership of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania prioritized “avoiding scandal” over protecting children. It walks readers step by step through a “playbook for concealing the truth.”

This last step is, in my view, the most important one. Many dioceses in America have made a concerted effort over the last two decades to prevent child sexual abuse by their priests. But when abuse does occur, and management of “scandal” is called for, the Church continues – to this day – to rely on many of the same “plays” that it has been using for the past fifty years. It is worth quoting the Report at length, here, because the jurors have gotten the Church’s playbook exactly right:

-      First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocese documents. Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”

-      Second, don’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel. Instead, assign fellow clergy members to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.

-      Third, for an appearance of integrity, send priests for “evaluation” at church-run psychiatrictreatment centers. Allow these experts to “diagnose” whether the priest was a pedophile, based largely on the priest’s “self-reports,” and regardless of whether the priest had actually engaged in sexual contact with a child.

-      Fourth, when a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on “sick leave,” or suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Or say nothing at all.

-      Fifth, even if a priest is raping children, keep providing him housing and living expenses, although he may be using these resources to facilitate more sexual assaults.

-      Sixth, if a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.

-      Finally and above all, don’t tell the police. Child sexual abuse, even short of actual penetration, is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personnel matter, “in house.”

That is a damning indictment. If any reforms come about as a result of this Report, I expect them to be related to the Church’s internal investigative processes. The public and the courts are better equipped to scrutinize those processes, with this Report in hand. There are 177 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States. I suspect that many of them will find themselves subject to similar grand jury investigations in the coming months and years. 

I want to say something about the phenomenon of the Report itself: the grand jury has provided a very timely and very powerful example of our country’s institutional capacity to engage in a thorough and unsparing evaluation of the sins of the past. By and large, this was not a grand jury tasked with issuing indictments in the criminal courts; as the Report notes, “as a consequence of the coverup, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.” If they knew the criminal law, they knew that from the outset – but this grand jury was tasked with issuing indictments in the court of public opinion, and it proved itself particularly well-suited to that task.

I have spoken in prior posts about America’s lack of individual and institutional capacity for critical self-examination – which is obviously more difficult than other-examination – but the model on display in Pennsylvania shows promise. A grand jury was convened, not for the purpose of issuing criminal indictments but for the purpose of examining decades of history (via primary sources), evaluating the decisions made in those decades with a critical eye, and issuing findings for public consideration. The grand jury was convened for an essentially critical purpose, not a legal one. As a result of its authorship by a grand jury, the Report also carries the imprimatur of "objectivity" and/or "fairness" that Americans tend to associate with juries of all types (as evidenced by the "reasonable person standards" that denote jury decisions in American law).

The result has been a discourse, of sorts – at least as close an approximation as we seem able muster these days - bypassing the "kill the messenger" stage that so frequently prevents any substantive message from being delivered. This hints at a possible solution to an increasingly widespread and dangerous problem: the pervasive distrust of critical analysis purveyed by private media outlets. If Americans find themselves unable to trust the critical analysis created by private media outlets (believing that critical analysis to be corrupted, inevitably, by hyper-partisan), then maybe an increasing amount of critical analysis-by-jury could serve to restore a crucial degree of trust to the endeavor of critical analysis more broadly. 

If the Report can be considered the result of an experiment, I am interested in seeing that experiment replicated - first with other dioceses (to build a control group), and then in other historical matters not related to the Church. There is serious potential for increased critical capacity here, and it should be systematically explored.

Deep Space

Writing is Hard