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Storytelling revealed evil: Grand jury report vividly depicts horrors of clergy sex abuse

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Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro recently released a grand jury report into clergy sexual abuse, which identified more than 1,000 child victims.

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By and large, criminal complaints, affidavits and other documents prepared by law-enforcement agencies are poorly written.

They’re portentous, heavy on jargon and short on style, with one simple sentence following another monotonously. Even if rich in detail, getting through them can be a slog.

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Not so the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse of children in the Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg and Scranton dioceses. Echoing the format of a report another grand jury produced two years ago about sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the 884-page document released Aug. 14 grabs readers from the very first sentence:

“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this.”

What follows, as much of the nation knows by now, is a comprehensive account of the horrors perpetrated on children by men of the cloth over several decades. The graphic details of the crimes and scope of the church’s cover-ups are appalling.

But shock factor alone does not explain why the public reaction has been so visceral and why the report has resonated so strongly with so many. Presentation does. The report has a conversational, achingly honest tone that lays bare the misery of the victims, the heinousness of the crimes, the hypocrisy of a church that spurned the central tenets of its faith and a statute of limitations that now bars charges against most of the offenders.

“We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated,” the grand jury says. “This report is our only recourse. We are going to name their names and describe what they did — both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve. And we are going to make our recommendations for how the laws should change so that maybe no one will have to conduct another inquiry like this one.”

While officially the product of the grand jury, the document was written largely by a team from the criminal division of the state attorney general’s office. Attorney General Josh Shapiro was among the drafters and editors.

The report is free of jargon. It minces no words and pulls no punches, with some criticism leveled as law-enforcement officials who failed to pursue allegations of abuse over the years and “left children without their rightful civic watchdogs.”

It personalizes the crimes and connects readers to the victims, introducing 68-year-old Julianne, assaulted when she was 14; Joe, who waited 55 years to tell the grand jury about the “naked, masturbating priest who told him to take off his pants and get into bed”; and Bob, 83, who “can’t bear to be touched by a man, not even to shake hands or to hug his own sons,” because of what happened to him long ago.

During an investigation that spanned two years, the grand jurors reviewed half a million pages of diocesan documents. They were a trove of evidence and a source of nefarious turns of phrase — “circle of secrecy” and “secret archive,” for example — that added heft to the grand jury’s report.

The groundswell of anger the report engendered creates an atmosphere ripe for change. The grand jury’s proposals to expand civil liability and end the statute of limitations for certain sexual offenses can be fodder for informed public discussion largely because the grand jury presented its findings as a compelling narrative in which anger, sadness and passion for change leap from each page.

After reading it, the public cannot help but feel as the grand jurors did.

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