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Culture change espoused as Greensburg diocese listens to priest abuse concerns

November 9, 2018

Monday evening’s listening session inside Greensburg’s Blessed Sacrament Cathedral was a start in the Greensburg Catholic diocese’s attempt to move forward in the wake of accusations of sexual abuse by diocese priests in a state grand jury report released in August.

Referring to one parishioner’s call for a culture change in the diocese and its leadership, Tom Severin of Connellsville said after the session, “That’s really the direction we have to go as far as dealing with the pedophile scandal. It’s not just making rules -- it’s actually changing.”

The first of seven planned two-hour listening sessions drew more than 260 people to the Greensburg church to ask questions of and make suggestions to Bishop Edward C. Malesic and a Safe Environment Advisory Council of Catholic and non-Catholic members, formed to advise the church on how best to protect children.

In roughly 900 pages, the grand jury report details allegations of sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania, identifying 301 “predator priests” who are accused of molesting at least 1,000 victims over 70 years. Twenty priests from the Greensburg diocese are listed in the report.

The report charges that diocese officials, including bishops, permitted priests to continue working after child sexual abuse complaints were made against them and “dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to law enforcement.”

It also found that diocese leaders failed to properly investigate claims of child sexual abuse “in order to avoid scandal and possible criminal and civil liability.”

Church officials often used confidentiality agreements in civil settlements that threatened legal action against victims who spoke out publicly about abuse, the report said.

Severin, who was among diocese members who asked officials to hold the listening sessions, said the report exposed secrecy and insensitivity toward abuse victims.

“That’s part of the culture that needs to change,” he said. “There were some who were almost treated as if they were the enemy, when they were actually the victims. That completely blew my mind when I realized that’s the kind of thing that was happening.”

Some people attending Monday’s session said the diocese shouldn’t identify priests who have been removed from service because of “credible” accusations of abuse until those accusations have been proven.

Church officials are obligated to refer allegations of abuse of children to law enforcement for investigation, Malesic said. He said his goal is for the diocese to be “accountable and transparent. I’m committed to ensuring that our church is a very safe place.”

Some in attendance wanted to know how the diocese will make sure prospective priests who are likely to commit abuse don’t get assigned to such roles. Church officials noted criminal background checks and psychological tests are among current screenings for the priesthood, while most of the abuse cases reported by the grand jury occurred in a previous era -- in the 1980s or earlier.

“I don’t want to have anyone who has any pedophile activity in their history in the ministry,” Malesic said. “We can’t put the (church as an institution) ahead of the lives of our children.”

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