The Catholic Church abuse scandal in Pennsylvania: the power of religion

Grania sent me three items relevant to the ongoing scandal about sex abuse by the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.  #MeToo highlighted how power imbalances led to sexual abuse of many women, and this scandal shows the same thing with respect to the power of the Church. In fact, I can barely think of a religion (perhaps Quakers?) in which religious power has not led to rape and sexual abuse—mistreatment that wouldn’t have occurred in the absence of the cloak of sanctity covering church officials.

The Grand Jury’s report on the abuse is here, but if you don’t want to wade through the 1,356 pages, both Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), and Hemant Mehta, boss of The Friendly Atheist website, have done it for you. And both have summarized the results, with Hemant giving some of the more horrible details. (You need to read about those so you’ll realize how deep, disgusting, and traumatic to children this behavior was.) Here are the two pieces and an excerpt from each. (Click on screenshots to go to the articles.)

First, from the Freethought Now! website of the FFRF on Patheos:

Religion is the problem.

There are many gut-wrenching, heartbreaking details in the report — for an abbreviated catalog of horrors, see The Friendly Atheist’s article — but the consistent theme underlying the analysis is authority. Unquestionable, unassailable authority. Divine authority. In my opinion, that is the biggest contributor to the depth, breadth and severity of this menace.

If the Catholic Church were a chain of private schools or a secular, multinational corporation, it could never get away with raping children on an industrial scale and covering it up. The difference is that these young victims are taught by everyone in their orbit that their tormentors are divine. They are the representatives of god on earth. They are not to be questioned and certainly not to be disobeyed. In fact, to disobey your tormentor is to disobey god. Under Catholic Canon law, adherents are required to give a “religious submission of the intellect and will” to their church.

The entire power structure of the Catholic Church is predicated on complete obedience to “men of God.” The abuse is so bad in the church because it is a church. As one victim put it, the priests “are much above anybody else in your family or they are God in the flesh.”

The evil is boundless because of the power of religion.

And from the Friendly Atheist, whose examples will turn your stomach:

When you read this report and realize it’s just one group of priests in one state, you have to wonder what the stories would look like if a similar document was produced across the country, if not the world.

. . .So brace yourself.

Here’s a running list of some of the more egregious things you’ll find in the report.

(JAC: I’ve just given a couple; Hemant gives more).

  • Father Chester Gawronski fondled and masturbated at least 12 different children by saying he was just showing them “how to check for cancer.” (When one of these stories went public in 2002, Bishop Donald Trautman chastised the victim by arguing that he was only 14 when it happened, not 11 like the article said.)
  • Father Thomas D. Skotek raped an underage girl, got her pregnant, then paid for her abortion. His Bishop later said, “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” That letter was addressed to Skotek, not his victim.
  • Father George Zirwas was part of a predatory priest “ring” that “shared intelligence” on victims and exchanged them with each other. They “manufactured child pornography” on church property, using “whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims.”
  • Reverend Gerald Royer once molested a 12-year-old boy. The boy’s friend didn’t believe it… until, hidden in a closet, he witnessed the abuse himself. The victim, now 83, fought in wars, yet because of what Royer did, he could never hug or kiss his own children, who were boys. He can’t shake hands with men to this day. He can’t even see male doctors or dentists.
  • Father Gregory Flohr took a victim into the confessional and tied him up with rope. When the victim screamed, Flohr shut him up by shoving his penis in the victim’s mouth. When the victim wouldn’t accept it, Flohr sodomized him with a crucifix and called him a “bad boy.”
  • Reverend James Beeman raped a seven-year-old in the hospital just after she had “had her tonsils removed.” He raped her again when she was 19 and pregnant.

I’ll spare you the rest. Hemant details the way the Church deflected or avoided blame, and, at the end, summarizes the Grand Jury’s recommendations (not shown here). Here’s the Church’s strategy:

The grand jury also noted how the Church managed to cover all these crimes up as long as they did. Leaders, they said, followed a “playbook for concealing the truth” that consisted of seven steps:

  1. Use euphemisms. (“Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”)
  2. Don’t investigate with trained personnel. (Instead, let clergy members ask the victims “inadequate” questions before judging their own colleagues.)
  3. Evaluate priests at church-run “treatment centers.”
  4. Never say why a priest was removed. (Just say he’s on “sick leave” or something.)
  5. Keep providing priests with living expenses regardless of the allegations.
  6. Transfer the priests if his crime becomes public knowledge. (Send him to a place where “no one will know he is a child abuser.”)
  7. Don’t tell the police. (Keep it “in house.”)

I really don’t know how, after these revelations, which extend to high levels in the Church, one can remain a Catholic—a member of this organization.

Finally, here’s a video by The Thinking Atheist on the mess, which includes a long interview with Andrew Seidel.


  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    The Onion has something to say about all this, through Satan.

  2. JB
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard not to choke up reading this stuff… I have kids and I can’t imagine how the parents feel when they realize they’ve entrusted their children to these monsters…

    • Posted October 14, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Religious parents should bring their kids along to church for the sermon, stay next to them during the sermon, then bring them home. Safe and easy!

  3. Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I was brought up Catholic and spent 15 years in Catholic school, and got as far away from that stuff as I could when I left for college at 18. The teachings are so hypocritical–love everyone, yet discriminate against homosexuals; Catholics are better than Christians though they believe essentially the same things. It simply wasn’t working for me, and I’m sad yet not surprised by the recent news. I hope that people leave the church and/or the church makes some massive changes.

    • Liz
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Catholics are Christians.
      (see Taxonomy)

      I also hope that people leave the church or that it is completely dismantled.

      • yazikus
        Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        I was talking to a parent friend who just enrolled her kids in private school (kiddo had been a classmate in public school), and told me she gave the kids the choice of ‘catholic or christian’. I didn’t say anything, but I wonder how prevalent that line of thinking is?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          I think pretty prevalent among Catholics but I’ve heard them reverse it and see themselves as Christians but not Protestants, which really confused me.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

            I mean the Catholics called themselves “Christian” but didn’t see Protestants as Christians.

            • Liz
              Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

              “Denominationalism is the belief that some or all Christian groups are legitimate churches of the same religion regardless of their distinguishing labels, beliefs, and practices.[9]….

              This particular doctrine is rejected by Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the Oriental Orthodoxy.”

              This might be why.

              • yazikus
                Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                As someone raised non-denominational evangelical and later converted to Orthodoxy, they all seem to think they are the one and only truest of the true church. Same goes for LDS The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, SDA’s, etc.

              • rickflick
                Posted August 31, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

                I read too quickly and thought you wrote “Saturday Saints”. Now THAT I could go for.

            • Helen
              Posted August 31, 2018 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, but that can not be backed up in any way. Catholics can not say that and would not. If Trinitarian, they would be Christians No need for a baptism upon conversion if Trinitarian. Please do not pass Long hearsay and anecdotes.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted September 1, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

                I was merely relating what all my relatives said to me who are Catholic. i be saying it was correct. Please don’t insinuate that I am a liar.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted September 1, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

                That should be “I never said it was correct”.

          • Posted August 31, 2018 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            I’ve seen just this among my family. Catholics are Christians, but yet Mormons are considered be this abhorrent separate entity who (oh my god!) worship Joseph Smith instead of the God-Jesus-Holy Spirit triad. There is so much mis-information with the Catholic church (and perhaps other denominations), where separate sects of Christianity have no clue that there is actually a fair amount of overlap. Having been raised Catholic and having started college by reading every single religious text, I have two observations: 1) Catholic leaders put their belief system on a pedestal, making others seem far inferior, and 2) most religions are founded on the premise of good will towards other, and we’d all be better off if we embraced that simple truth, without all the trappings of organized religion.

          • XCellKen
            Posted August 31, 2018 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

            For what its worth, the nuns used to tell us that unlike Catholics, Protestants could not go to Heaven, cause they did not believe in the One True Faith ™. The one founded by old JC himself. So according to the Sisters of Notre Dame, Catholics and Protestants are different

      • Posted August 31, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        Yes. I still get into arguments with my parents about how Catholicism falls under the umbrella of Christianity, along with Mormonism and others. It is frustrating how ignorant and blinded, even the smartest and big-hearted people can be.

        • rickflick
          Posted August 31, 2018 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

          It’s right in the name.

          catholic: including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.

          If you do a Venn diagram, you get Catholicism and everything else inside. Like a bloated amebae.

          • Zetopan
            Posted September 4, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

            “Like a [diseased] bloated amebae”

            My attempt to be more precise.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 31, 2018 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        The Catholics I know have all considered themselves Christians, but it wasn’t always the case that “Christians” accepted Catholics into their fold. I think this was true of some Mainline Protestants in the first half of the 20th century, when antipapism served as a proxy for anti-immigrant bias, and for southern Evangelicals until a few decades ago.

        Ethnic assimilation extinguished much of the former, and the common cause made between Evangelicals and right-wing Catholics over abortion and other Kulturkampf issues has largely extinguished the second, although it’s still possible to find some hard-shells out there who rail against the Pope.

        • Rita
          Posted August 31, 2018 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          I think the Evangelicals tend to pretend to accept Catholics because of abortion. But, if the Evangelical ever got to control things, then Catholics would be the first on the chopping block.

  4. yazikus
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    It really is time for folks to quit the ROC. Between this report and the article about the nuns of St. Francis, the unfathomable cruelty and disregard for human life and dignity, there isn’t any excuse to stay. The GAM guys might be vulgar at times, but their names for the ROC are spot on.

  5. mikeyc
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    My father was abused by the nuns in his school – not sexually, but physically. In addition to the normal daily beatings any young boy would get, he was left handed (which is the mark of the debil, dontcha know?) and they tied his hand to the desk so he couldn’t use it. To the end of his days he could write with either hand. That and his hatred for the church is pretty much the only things those nuns taught him.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, my grandmother was abused by nuns as well. Her mother died during the Depression and her father had to work so he had to surrender all his daughters to the Church. The nuns once made her stand outside in -20C winter weather in a nightgown for playing basketball (because that’s what boys do). She was terrified of nuns all her life. I have to say, the Clergy scare the crap out of me too & always have.

      • boggy
        Posted September 13, 2018 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        In Irish childrens’ homes, run by nuns, dead children were stuffed into septic tanks.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 13, 2018 at 8:51 am | Permalink

          Look up “butter box baby”. My dad was in that adoption home for unwed mothers. He’s lucky not have ended up in the butter box. I don’t think they were Catholic though.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t go so far as to classify it as “abuse,” but as a Catholic school boy I got my share of corporal punishment from the nuns by way of paddle and ruler — but, then, I was a bit of a weisenheimer in those days (if you can imagine that 🙂 ).

      • Randy Bessinger
        Posted August 31, 2018 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t heard that word in a long time. Praise be to you😀

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    And just think about it. Our Supreme court is full of these fine folks. I don’t hear about any of them throwing in the towel. This church is so bad it gives Trump a good name. Well, not a good name but okay.

    • boggy
      Posted September 13, 2018 at 5:31 am | Permalink

      A pity that Trump is not a Catholic. If he was, we could hate him even more.

  7. Historian
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a devout Catholic relating why she is leaving the Catholic church. But, she’s not giving up on faith. She is simply moving to a more congenial church. I do not know how typical she is in this respect. I do not know whether the church scandal will result in a significant plus for atheism.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 1, 2018 at 1:57 am | Permalink

      Interesting. Part of her reasons for sticking with her church as long as she did:
      “I imagine that if you like democracy, you can have a sense of what it’s like to watch something you care about become overrun with people who disgust you.”

      That rang a bell…


  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I can barely think of a religion (perhaps Quakers?) in which religious power has not led to rape and sexual abuse …

    I dunno, I don’t think you can accuse the UUs of much impropriety — unless it’s a surfeit of sincerity and civic-mindedness. 🙂

    • Rita
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Years ago, I read a fictional book that was based on a true story about a Quaker leader abusing a young girl who became pregnant. Because there was no sex education, the girl had no idea what was happening. When the Quaker elders saw the problem, they began a program of sex ed for the kids in the denomination, so they deserve a lot of credit for that. According to the story, this happened around late 1800’s or early 1900’s.

      • Erp
        Posted August 31, 2018 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        There are multiple Quaker denominations (or to use their terminology ‘Yearly Meetings’). Some have clergy and some don’t though even the latter have more respected members and many have schools. Note the question for most organizations (religious or not) isn’t usually the abuse but (a) how they try to prevent it and (b) how they handle things when respected members (including those who are official leaders) are accused.

        “Swarthmore Sex Scandals Reveal the Pernicious Effects of the Myth that Quaker Colleges and Schools are Egalitarian Rape-Free Zones”

    • Erp
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      The UUs have had their share.

    • Posted September 4, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Some of them (as I encountered via my parents, who are members) are *too* open-minded. A case study in “don’t be so open minded your brains fall out”.

      (Alternative medicine, constructivist-relativist nonsense, “you’re really the same” theologies, etc.)

  9. Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    If you don’t live in Pennsylvania, are are curious about child-raping priests in your town, you may consult

    I checked, and there are plenty of reports from the town where I live. I’ll bet you will find some also.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I typed in my town (Milwaukee) and got 2,460 hits.

    • Posted August 31, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      There are 29 from my city, including 4 of whom I knew from my childhood parish and Catholic school. The priest from my church who mysteriously disappeared when I was 14 was pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of 5 youth, giving youth alcohol, and masturbating while another priest molested youth. It absolutely sickens me that these individuals abuse others’ trust, and that higher-ups in the church participate in covering it up. It’s absolutely disgraceful, and I’m so grateful to have made the decision to leave so many years ago.

    • Marta
      Posted September 1, 2018 at 8:35 am | Permalink has been at the forefront of the Catholic sex abuse scandal since the beginning. It’s a terrific repository of documents and data, especially going back to the early days, before the sex abuse scandal broke wide–there’s practically none better. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can spend MONTHS at, reading depositions, newspaper articles, and the files of Diocese(s), among other things.

      They can use our financial support, so if you’re ever in the mood and find yourself with a few bucks you don’t know what to do with, they’d appreciate it if you tossed them their way.

  10. Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Catholicism is not going away soon. Religion is not going away soon. And, equally unfortunately, abuse by authorities will also not go away soon.
    So one should ask how can this be prevented in the future? By that I am asking for realistic suggestions.

    • yazikus
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps we could stop referring to it as a ‘scandal’ and call it an epidemic? onslaught? Something less associated with tabloid dramas.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      Don’t conflate “not going away soon” with “insurmountable problem”. There are lots of ways to reduce these horrors.

      * Push to change statute of limitation laws
      * Support organizations like the FFRF
      * Advocate against religion

      • Posted September 4, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        I read of one case where the charges were dismissed because the victim had died. This also shouldn’t happen.

        • GBJames
          Posted September 4, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          That’s a weird one. With that logic no murder case would be tried!

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      The only thing I can think of is to remove all the legal privileges that religions still enjoy. Sanctity of the confessional; immunity from inspection and regulation by secular authorities; tax exemptions; autonomy of dioceses (which means the national leadership can claim the issues are nothing to do with them). And hit them in the pocket whenever abuse or complicity is proven. Every time.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 1, 2018 at 1:50 am | Permalink

        I don’t think you can practically remove autonomy of dioceses. I think, even more than the Catholic church, many Protestant churches are organised as a loose collective of like-minded congregations. I think e.g. much of Hinduism is the same.

        Not only that, but many sports are, I think, organised in the same way, as a collective of individual clubs. It would be destructive to impose a central organisation on them, but I don’t see how you could do it to churches without catching sports clubs in the net.

        The only way to do it to the Catholic church without causing massive collateral damage would be by specifically singling out Catholicism in legislation, and that would be a no-no, politically and constitutionally.


    • darrelle
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      The first step has got to be proper enforcement of laws. Take away the church’s privilege. Heck, at this point put together a special task force charged with focusing on criminal abuse within religious organizations.

  11. amyt
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    A relative of mine stopped watching the NFL because of players taking a knee. Pretty sure she won’t stop going to mass because of this dirty little scandal. Tots and pears.

  12. Jenny Haniver
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    By now, I’m sure, the news is known that “Australia’s Catholic Church has rejected calls for priests to be compelled to report child abuse revealed in confessionals” This announcement made AFTER the most recent monumental abuse reports were publicized.

    I’m not a canon lawyer, but I find this declaration interesing in light of the Church’s doctrine of crimen sollicitationis,, which,insofar as I can make out, is essentially a license woven from casuistry to justify keeping quiet when it comes to reporting sexual abuse allegations in the confesssional, but its scope extended well beyond the specific event of confession. The wiki notes that it was supposedly superseded by some other statute abrogating this directive; but I think the spirit still lived on and was operative, at least implicitly, in re cover-ups.

    It’s interesting to me that the Australian Church, whether or not it’s explicitly stated, is formally invoking the principle of crimen sollicitationis in its primary sense re the Confessional, which was supposed to have been removed from the books.

    And speaking about the cover-ups, it has now been alleged by the Philadelphia DA that the cover up goes all the way to the Vatican — Gee, who’da thunk — whether this pope knew as one prelate asserts, is as yet an open question, but it does seem to be that all along the way, and not just re Pennsylvania, but surely across the world, the Vatican was apprised and surely had a hand in the cover- ups. If the Vatican connection can be established beyond conjecture, I think it would be a bombshell. The Judas can no longer wash his hands.

    • JezGrove
      Posted September 1, 2018 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      I was about to mention the position of the RC church in Australia, but you’ve already mentioned it, and explained it better than I would have done – thanks Jenny!

  13. Frank Bath
    Posted August 31, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    The Catholic Church’s Mafia hush code is well named. The church IS a protection racket. ‘Do as we tell you and you’ll be safe, otherwise you’ll know hell. Give us your money.’

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      That is my analysis. I won’t recirculate my earlier statistics. I commented on the Patheos blog if someone wants it, but I ended with this:

      The sect is systematically indulging in the criminal interests of its sub-groups; it is a mafia.

  14. Robert Bray
    Posted September 1, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    One small, small amelioration would be to stop calling and writing ‘the Reverend’ as an honorific before priests’ and pastors’ names. This would have the (again small) effect of demystifying what is in fact much more a job than a vocation, with far too often the jobs in question being held by sexual predators or ‘confidence-men’ (see Melville, Sinclair Lewis, et al.).

    Strip them of their titles! Call them out by their homely real names!

    • Posted September 4, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Hm, maybe there’s something to that.

      One priest who I do admire and respect (even if I think his *being* a priest is odd) does not generally use his title in his philanthropic work (where I was involved) except when presenting to parliamentary committees and the like (as he does from time to time). Even *he* said that it was a shame that saying he’s “Father so-and-so” gets more traction than “Mr so-and-so” on matters like economic justice, mining policy, etc. (To us volunteers it was not even Mr – it was given name!)

  15. Posted September 1, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Wherever you find humans nothing surprises me, The CC church is it’s own heaven and hell! unfortunately it is it’s own god as well.

  16. Posted September 2, 2018 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    I am sick of everything that the church have ever done in whole its history.
    I don’t understand why people are still being religious and going to … church – the same who raped, killed, murdered poor people.
    I want the same “priests” who did this to feel the exact same thing that those rapped/abused children felt.

  17. Posted September 4, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, during the 1980s there was a lot of stuff revealed about how the higher-ups in the church were basically collaborating with the [literal] murder of their colleagues who were working through “liberation theology”, speaking out against the Argentinian junta, etc. Some of the same players are involved this time as well, so it is not surprising.

    There too many low-level clergy and maybe even a few archbishop-level people, some lay members, etc. all spoke out in outrage. But nothing happened.

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