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Let There Be Light: An Examination of Darkness in a Pennsylvania Diocese

Memorial_cross_in_Canna's_Church_of_Scotland_graveyard_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1426006“There’s nothing there in the dark that isn’t there in the light.”

Among the many well-intentioned but absurd nostrums told to children, this is perhaps the most frustrating. I was afraid of the dark as a child, albeit of things non-existent, or with no real chance of invading my bedroom. Nevertheless, the fear of inhabiting a space where your most valuable sense is compromised is hardly irrational. Fear of the dark is an evolutionary gift. We fear being in dark spaces because of what we know instinctively:  Most things that would hunt us love the advantage darkness provides.

And darkness, of course, can be figurative as well.

In the latest, miserable chapter of the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis, a particular diocese- Altoona-Johnstown, in southwest Pennsylvania- has been revealed as shrouded in darkness for decades, with predictably abysmal results. We don’t know this because the Church took it upon itself to publish a candid and self-reflective report. Instead, we know it because of a civil grand jury armed with a search warrant. Last week, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office released the deeply disturbing report of that investigative body, detailing the sexual abuse of children at the hands of mostly diocesan priests (priests who serve within a geographical area). In many cases, either written admissions of predatory priests were uncovered, or the men made admissions before the grand jury itself.

Two bishops, serving back to back for nearly 50 years, appear most responsible for the kind of behavior now notorious within the context of the abuse crisis. According to the grand jury, both ignored and/or covered up instances of abuse, pressured victims to settle out of court for pre-determined amounts, participated in relocating priests under cover of health related issues, knowingly returned credibly accused priests to active ministry, and so on. In every way, the leadership of this deeply troubled place kept this decades-long crisis in the dark. Not surprisingly, this darkness protected abusers and allowed them to hunt undeterred. As a result, for decades hundreds of children were irreparably damaged, mentally, spiritually, and physically.

It’s unfortunate that the Church needed to be compelled by legal process to assist in the production of this report. Regardless, now that it’s out, it should be studied closely by both civil authorities and the Church as well. It’s important to note that most dioceses don’t appear to have been as successfully infiltrated by abusers as Altoona-Johnstown. One organization, Bishop Accountability (criticized as unreliable by some in the Catholic community), publishes a data base of accused priests by diocese within the U.S. The site does not provide per capita data, so it’s not easy to tell by the raw numbers how plagued a particular diocese may have been relative to its size. But there are some compelling indicators. Large dioceses (known as Archdioceses) show some remarkable disparities; Los Angeles and Boston, both notorious for abuse, show over 250 accused priests each, while New York and Chicago show far less. The diocese I grew up in (Arlington, Virginia), has over 450,000 registered Catholics. I happen to know (apart from the database) that Arlington has had an unusually low number of reported incidents of abuse over time. In Altoona-Johnstown, with around 100,000 Catholics, hundreds were identified just in this grand jury report.

Most likely, luck and coincidence do not account for these disparities. They’re far more likely driven by the atmosphere set in large part by the authority on the ground. It’s no secret that Arlington, one of the most conservative dioceses in the U.S., is not one I always agree with on issues of faith and practice. But they appear to be doing something right where child protection is concerned. That should be emulated as much as the actions of past bishops in Altoona-Johnstown (the current bishop is accused of no wrongdoing) should be avoided.

Contrary to some beliefs, held often by those antagonistic to the Church in general, the institution, while highly imperfect, neither solicits nor “manufactures” predators. Instead it almost always unwittingly attracts them, as literally every religious institution occasionally does. With its global reach, vast resources and ancient roots, the Church has always been a sadly attractive place for predators. Sadder still is the Church’s often disastrous response to this neutral fact, a response that has made the problem immensely worse. One thing it can do now, in the wake of a report pried from darkness, is use it to illuminate every space it touches. The stakes are too high for anything else. 

Let there be light.