Photo of a church altar.
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Washington on Oct. 12 after he was named during the recent Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into Catholic leaders covering up systemic clerical abuse. According to a New York Times report, Cardinal Donald Wuerl poorly handled several reports of abuse by clergy members while he was serving as bishop of Pittsburgh. 

Wuerl had previously acted as a leader in the church’s fight against clerical abuse. Many victims and advocates were surprised when the pope cited Wuerl’s “nobility” in the letter accepting his resignation, saying the papacy is not going far enough to remove Wuerl from power.  

While he will no longer carry the title of archbishop of Washington, Francis asked Wuerl to carry on as an “Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese” until his successor is chosen.  

Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a victim advocacy group, told the New York Times, “They’re removing him from this situation where people feel betrayed, but he’s still got all the power pretty much that he ever had.” 

When the Pennsylvania grand jury released its findings on child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the conclusions – and the numbers – were staggering: more than 1,000 identified children abused at the hands of more than 300 “predator priests,” occurring over decades under a systemic cover-up by the church.  

The report, released 15 August, suggests that the real number of victims is much higher, with some records lost to time and many people unwilling to come forward.  

While the report is unprecedented in its scope, attorney Mitchell Garabedian believes it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  

“There’s many more victims in Pennsylvania, and many more abusing priests and many more supervisors who allowed the sexual abuse to occur,” Garabedian said. “It’s been my experience over the decades that the first wave of victims usually empowers the second wave of victims, which continues for years.”  

Garabedian has represented thousands of victims who were sexually abused by priests in the Catholic Church over the past 20 years. In 2002, he helped reporters in the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team shed light on decades of abuse in the Boston archdiocese. The Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting, which led to thousands more sexual abuse allegations against clergy members from around the world. Garabedian said he’s been contacted by victims as far away as Haiti, Germany and England.  

The investigation was depicted in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight.”  

When he began working with victims who had been abused in 1994, not many people believed Garabedian. It all started when a single mother living in Boston’s housing projects came to him worried about changes in the behavior of her three children, according to Garabedian.   

“One was washing his hands every day until they bled,” Garabedian said. “Another one was taking two-hour showers, and another was being violent towards his brothers, which was not characteristic of any of them.”  

Garabedian started investigating the children’s odd behavior and discovered a common thread: Father John J. Geoghan had been putting them to bed every night. Other mothers in the housing project started sharing similar stories and Garabedian soon uncovered 86 children who had been abused by the priest.  

Geoghan specifically targeted children from poor families, the Globe reported. The number of victims who said they were abused by him eventually climbed to about 150, according to the Globe. He was ultimately sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison for fondling a 10-year-old boy at a swimming pool and was murdered in his prison cell in 2003.  

In 2002, the Globe’s Spotlight investigation uncovered 70 pedophile priests and exposed how the Catholic Church protected them and covered up their crimes through secret settlements and confidentiality agreements. 

Despite the church’s efforts, the floodgates had opened.  

In 2004, a report filed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops revealed more than 10,000 allegations of sexual abuse made against thousands of priests in the United States between 1950 and 2002. 

Another 4,000 allegations have been made against priests in Australia and more than 300 in Canada, Germany, Ireland and Belgium, according to the John Jay College report. The Catholic Church has acknowledged 3,400 credible accusations received between 2004 and 2014.  

In 2005, after having paid $50 million to more than 100 victims of sexual abuse, the Archdiocese of Portland became the first in the nation to declare bankruptcy as a result of the abuse cases, according to the Catholic News Service. Others were soon to follow, including those in Tucson, Arizona; Spokane, Washington; and Fairbanks, Alaska. In May, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis agreed to pay $210 million to 450 victims of clergy sexual abuse as part of its bankruptcy settlement.  

The church’s victims come from diverse backgrounds and eras. Of the thousands of victims who contacted Garabedian, the oldest was 86 and said he had been abused in 1937.  

“Everyone in his life had died, so he felt as though he could talk about this without hurting those individuals,” Garabedian said.   

Victims often go through a range of emotions as they begin to share their experiences. Not everyone has been able to overcome the tragedy they’ve endured, Garabedian said; many have committed suicide. Just being able to talk about the abuse they endured can be a relief to some of the victims.  

“It’s taking a great weight off their shoulders so that they can realize that the sexual abuse was not their fault, and they shouldn’t feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed.” 

In 2012, Garabedian represented victims in Ohio who he said had been molested by Brother Stephen Baker, a Franciscan friar accused of sexually abusing dozens of teens in at least three states, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The settlements in that case resulted in Pennsylvania victims coming forward. 

“I’m told that that sparked the [grand jury] investigation in Pennsylvania,” Garabedian said.  

The grand jury investigated every diocese in the state except Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, which had been subject to previous grand jury investigations. Despite the extensive nature of the investigation, the grand jury concluded that its report was still not a complete picture of the abuse that occurred in Pennsylvania.  

“We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands,” the report said.  

About a dozen victims who were not included in the report have already reached out to Garabedian. He will be representing them with local counsel in Pennsylvania.   

After the grand jury report was released in August, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine told Washington City Paper his phone was “burning up” with calls for a local investigation. When Wuerl’s resignation was announced on Oct. 12, Racine’s office began circulating the number for the District’s report hotline for child abuse, 202-671-SAFE. “We want to remind all residents that they have a [legal] responsibility to report suspected child sexual abuse to the authorities—and that failure to report could result in a fine,” Public Affairs Specialist Marissa Geller wrote in an e-mail.  

On Oct. 15, the Archdiocese of Washington voluntarily published a report detailing 31 former clergy members accused of clerical abuse against minors. The review, an investigation of the last 70 years, was ordered by Wuerl in 2017. “This list is a painful reminder of the grave sins committed by clergy, the pain inflicted on innocent young people, and the harm done to the church’s faithful, for which we continue to seek forgiveness,” Wuerl said in a statement.  

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests criticized the list for being incomplete and called on the attorneys general for D.C., Maryland and Virginia to launch an independent investigation.   

“For example, it omits the name of Fr. William Wert, a priest who was first charged in 1997 for assaulting a 14-year-old boy and today is serving life in prison,” the group said in a statement. “The list also leaves off Fr. Garrett Orr, another priest who was convicted of sexual abuse and made to register as a sex offender in 2011. Similarly, Fr. Matthew Miles himself admitted in a March 2008 deposition that he had molested boys while working in Washington D.C. Given such easily found omissions, the integrity of the entire list is called into question.”  

People were skeptical when Garabedian started working with victims in 1994, but that is no longer the case. He is grateful to the victims who have come forward, without which he said the “healing and protection of children could not take place.”  

“The tide has turned,” Garabedian said.