Church sex abuse allegations detailed in Georgia report
This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 24, 2023.
A long-awaited investigation into sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Georgia detailed historical abuse by clergy, but the review did not uncover ongoing or active allegations of sexual abuse that could be criminally pursued.
The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia report said none of those priests could be prosecuted because they are either deceased, have already been prosecuted or the statute of limitations expired before the review was launched.
Most of the victims were boys but there were also girls.
The report details allegations against priests, members of religious orders and others, who at some point worked in the archdiocese and diocese, and their resolutions.
The Church in the United States placed little focus on victims and no uniform policies for protecting children were in place prior to 2002, according to the report. Then the U.S. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the national “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
“When allegations of abuse occurred, the common response of the church was to provide therapy to the priests, usually by sending them to various facilities, ” the report said.
The Church now requires all allegations of abuse of minors be reported to state welfare officials.
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Roughly 70 priests, deacons and those with religious orders whose allegations were deemed credible were detailed in the report, all but 13 were named.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr in 2019 asked the state’s Morrow-based Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council to launch the investigation.
The PAC conducted the independent third-party review of records, files, documents, and reports related to suspected child abuse cases in the possession of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah.
Both the Atlanta archdiocese and the Savannah diocese cooperated with investigators.
At least one of alleged abuses go back to the 1940s with one victim only 4-years-old at the time of her abuse. The only time files could not be obtained was 2020 and 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic, when church facilities were not accessible, according to the PAC.
The Most Rev. Gregory J. Hartmayer, archbishop of Atlanta, called abuse by priests, religious brothers or sisters, volunteers or employees of the Catholic Church "unacceptable. It cannot and will not be tolerated. This archdiocese will not protect abusers and we will not allow them to have access to our communities.”
While the secular investigations generally produce the most evidence, “it’s apparent this report comes up way short,” said Mike McDonnell, a spokesman for SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).
He said it was vary hard to believe “knowing how meticulous church officials are with documentation and the number of Catholics served in both boundaries, that there are not more documented cases of abuse.”
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Atlanta Atty. Darren W. Penn, who is representing several sexual abuse survivors, was critical of the report, although he was glad the issue of clergy sexual abuse was made public.
"The report has an air of ‘this is all in the past and let’s put it behind us now’ feel about it. What we should be doing is recognizing the clear failures of the Archdiocese and the Church in general and putting our effort into finding solutions that will prevent this type of conduct from ever happening again.”
The 2019 probe was announced by Carr just months after the Archdiocese of Atlanta, released the names of 15 priests, seminarians, and those under direct authority of a religious order who were “credibly” accused of the abuse of minors.
The list was last updated Sept. 28, 2022, and has grown to contain about 30 names. The list goes back to the establishment of the archdiocese in 1956 and is still available on the archdiocesan website.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah also has a list on its website that contains the names of 18 people.
It includes Wayland Brown, who served in the Savannah diocese from 1977 to 1998, was later convicted and sentenced to a 20 years in South Carolina on multiple counts of criminal sexual assault with a minor and died in 2019, according to the diocese.
The sex abuse crisis has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and globally for decades. Molestation by priests and others in the Church was the subject of a Boston Globe newspaper investigation in 2002 that found accused priests were often moved to other churches or placed on sick leave. The report told how those accused were rarely being held accountable.
Nationally and internationally, the scandals in various archdioceses and dioceses have tested the Church.
“The credibility of the bishops who teach on matters of morality is lessened and severely damaged by their inaction when they’ve had information about clergy who are abusers and they didn’t do anything to keep that from happening again and again,” said Sandra Yocum, a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton. “Its impact is going to be long-term.”
Speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Yocum said she recognizes that it’s the state’s duty to investigate such allegations because there could be crimes committed.
The denomination has nearly 62 million Catholics in the nation, according to the U.S. Religion Census.
Georgia is among several probes of abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church launched by government agencies in recent years. Such probes means that there is going to be accountability that goes beyond the confines of the Church, said Yocum.
She added: “The U.S. Catholic Church will need to cooperate with state investigations for the foreseeable future.”
Georgia Catholics by the numbers:
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta
1.2 million Catholics
Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah
There are nearly 62 million Catholics in the U.S., much of the growth has been in the South.
*Source: 2022 Official Catholic Directory, Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah, U.S. Religion Census, which is conducted every 10 years by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies
How to report abuse:
Savannah: If you are a victim of abuse by clergy, an employee or a volunteer in the Diocese of Savannah, or if you know of anyone who has been a victim of such misconduct, please contact civil authorities and the Diocese Abuse Reporting Line at 1-888-357-5330.
Atlanta: If you know or suspect a case of sexual abuse, call the archdiocesan 24-hour Abuse Reporting Hotline at 1-888-437-0764. If allegation of abuse involves any member of the clergy, employee, or volunteer of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, you must contact the Office of the District Attorney and the Office of Child and Youth Protection in addition to DFCS within 24 hours, according to the website.
SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) www.https://snapnet.org
Together We Heal at https://together-we-heal-org/
Shelia has worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than 30 years. Previously, she worked at The Lexington Herald-Leader and The Louisville Defender. Her beat is a bit of a mixed bag that includes religion and spirituality, culture and trends, race and aging. She earned degrees from Spelman College and Northwestern University.
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Atlanta Savannah Catholic Church sex abuse allegations detailed in Georgia report