The news last week of Catholic priests defiling children in Pennsylvania should have shocked us. But many of us may be beyond shock. Haven’t we seen all this before?

Well, in a way, yes. This was the 11th report by a grand jury or attorney general detailing sexual abuse of children and young adults by Catholic priests, and it contained some of the biggest numbers. More than 1,000 abused kids over 70 years. More than 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro and a grand jury handed up the report on Tuesday. Among the worst cases cited were those of a priest raping a 7-year-old girl he was visiting in a hospital and of a priest who washed out a 9-year-old boy’s mouth with holy water after forcing the boy to perform oral sex on him.

Consider a priest’s power. “Do what Father tells you, so you can go to Heaven.” Can’t you just hear thousands of Catholic parents telling that to their daughters and sons?

The story of priests sexually abusing children crystallized in 2002 when The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team reported on abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. The project had begun as an investigation into sotto voce rumors of a priest who had abused 80 boys.

The Spotlight Team rightly won a Pulitzer Prize for its work. The movie “Spotlight” in 2015 dramatized The Globe’s work and won the Academy Award as best picture. See it if you can. First time I saw it, the theater remained dead silent as the credits rolled. Not one person got up to leave before the screen went blank. We were all stunned. I walked out proud to have been a journalist for 20 years.

But I’m also a Christian (Congregationalist) and appalled by what is going on in the name of religion. The Catholic Church takes most of the heat, but other denominations, including mine, have had similar scandals, though on a smaller scale.

If even our churches can be so deeply corrupted, is it any wonder that so many Americans distrust our institutions? Or that people are staying away from church by the millions? To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark (read church), nobody’s going to stop them.” Attendance at Mass by Catholics has slipped from about 75 percent in 1955 to less than 30 percent.

When our institutions fail us, we expect the individuals responsible to be punished. All too often, they are not. Several of my political science courses and seminars in college dealt with bureaucracy, or administration if you want a prettier word. My most vivid takeaway is that any bureaucracy will always serve itself first. Protect the institution at all costs. Worse yet, protect those at the top of the institution from all accountability.

Who took the heat for the My Lai massacre? Not the commanders in Vietnam, but Lt. William Calley and Capt. Ernest Medina. Middle managers, if you will. Who went to jail for wrecking the economy in 2007-’08 by peddling worthless documents? A handful of mid-level lenders, according to William Black, a bank regulator during the savings and loan crisis of 30 years ago. No heads of banks, no wheeler-dealers in phony “securities.”

Black told the Moyers and Company program on PBS in 2013 that, “The savings and loan debacle . . . produced over 1,000 felony convictions . . . They involved roughly 300 savings and loans and 600 individuals, and virtually all of those people were prosecuted.”

But the trend is away from holding the top dogs accountable. In 2007-’08, no regulatory agency made a criminal referral. These agencies, all active in the savings and loan scandal, were Office of Thrift Supervision, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve and the FDIC.

Just as the financial industry protected the greatest malfeasors, so has the church protected both the abusers and those who protected the abusers. For us who count ourselves as religious, this is sobering.

Yet, amid all the distrust of institutions generally and of religious institutions specifically, hope may be unfolding from the story of priests sexually abusing children.

As I’ve been writing this column, I’ve been reading The New York Times and other accounts of the report. On Friday morning came the response from the Vatican, where a near civil war has been raging since Pope Francis was elected five-and-a-half years ago, a civil war between the Vatican old guard, which wants to keep everything in house and quiet, to change nothing, and the more open albeit still traditional views of the Pope.

I found a bit of hope in the Vatican’s assignment of responsibility to the top. “The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible. There should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

And, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, acknowledged that much of the blame lies on the shoulders of bishops.

DiNardo is calling for the Vatican to investigate the abuses of the disgraced Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, charged with some of the most serious abuses and cover-ups even while ostensibly calling for reform.

It’s too late to rebuild the lives of thousands of Catholics and, more likely, former Catholics who were abused by priests. But here’s hoping the Pennsylvania report leads finally to reform. I’m praying that their words turn into action.

Bob Neal wonders whether sexual abuse by priests would have come to light were it not for the Boston Globe, one of the newspapers the President calls “enemies of the people.”


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