Pope Francis denounced on Thursday the horrible findings of a years-long grand jury investigation into 70 years of sexual abuse by Catholic Church officials in six Pennsylvania dioceses.
He said through a spokesperson that the abuses described in the 1,300-page report are "criminal and morally reprehensible" and that they "robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith."
The leader of the Catholic church issued the statement two days after the release of the much-anticipated report, which is the most comprehensive investigation yet into systemic sexual abuse in the church in the United States.
"The Holy Father understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirit of believers and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the Church and in all of society," Francis's spokesman, Greg Burke, said in the statement. "Victims should know that the Pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent."
Lurid details released throughout more than 1,300 pages include rape, abortions, confessions and cover-ups. It took the grand jury more than two years to fully investigate the claims contained in the explicit report.
The grand jury investigated dioceses in Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton, which together minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics.
About 25 percent of people throughout the state identify as Catholic, according to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
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"There have been other reports of abuse in the Catholic Church," the report said. "But never on this scale."
The grand jury heard allegations against more than 300 clergy members, according to the report. Most of the victims were boys. Some were teens, while others were prepubescent. Several alleged victims were lured with alcohol or pornography. Afterward, they turned to substance abuse and even suicide to escape the lingering trauma.
All told, more than 1,000 victims were identified from the church's own records and there could be thousands more, the grand jurors concluded.
Some of the priests alleged to have been abusers have died. All but two allegedly committed crimes that are outside Pennsylvania's statute of limitations, meaning that criminal charges cannot be filed against many of so-called "predator priests" mentioned in the report.
Laws governing the state's statute of limitations were described as "weak laws" in need of immediate change by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and some lawmakers, including Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat who represents Berks County.
Rozzi has said he was sexually abused by a priest as a boy.
Some victims' names were blacked out from the document but many were revealed with their permission.
The grand jury named 99 so-called predator priests from the Pittsburgh diocese, however, including several whose actions were especially shocking.
"One boy was forced to stand naked on a bed in the rectory, strip naked and pose as Christ on the cross for the priests," Shapiro said. "They took photos of their victim, adding them to a collection of child pornography which they produced and shared on church grounds."
Some current and former clergy named in the report went to court to prevent its release, arguing it violated their constitutional rights to reputation and due process of law. The state Supreme Court said the public had a right to see it, but ruled the names of priests and others who objected to the findings would be blacked out pending a September hearing on their claims.
The identities of those clergy members remain under court seal.
A couple of dioceses got out ahead of the report and released the names of clergy members who were accused of sexual misconduct with children. On Friday, the bishop of Pittsburgh's diocese said a few priests named in the report are still in ministry because the diocese determined allegations against them were unsubstantiated.
The grand jury's work might not result in justice for Catholics who say they were molested as children. While the probe yielded charges against two clergymen — including a priest who has since pleaded guilty, and another who allegedly forced his accuser to say confession after each sex assault — the vast majority of priests already identified as perpetrators are either dead or are likely to avoid arrest because their alleged crimes are too old to prosecute under state law.
The document comes at a time of renewed scrutiny and fresh scandal at the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church. Pope Francis stripped 88-year-old Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of his title and ordered him to a lifetime of prayer and penance amid allegations that McCarrick had for years sexually abused boys and had sexual misconduct with adult seminarians.
The report reverberated around the country because of the movement of priests over the years. Father Raymond Lukac, who was named in the report, also had been assigned to parishes in Illinois and Indiana.
In Pennsylvania, criminal charges can only be brought under the statute of limitations in effect at the time of the crime.
For those alleging abuse in the 1970s, that means two years from when it happened. For others, it means two years after they turned 18. Current state law allows prosecutors to file criminal charges before the one-time child victim turns 50 and for victims to seek civil damages in court before they turn 30.
Pope Francis through his spokesman seemed to suggest that wide-ranging abuse has been reduced following investigations of dioceses across the United States.
"Most of the discussion in the report concerns abuses before the early 2000s. By finding almost no cases after 2002, the Grand Jury’s conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse," Francis's spokesman, Burke, said. "The Holy See encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm."