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Clergy sex abuse report has wide-ranging impact on victims

September 3, 2018

Victims of clergy sexual abuse and their family members react last week as state Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses.

Brent Robbins’ heart sank as he read the grand jury report released Tuesday about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania.

He knew one of the priests named: the Rev. George A. Wilt, who was accused of sexually abusing a young teen girl and inappropriately touching and kissing other girls and women at Mt. Lebanon’s St. Bernard. Wilt denied wrongdoing and said he wasn’t serving at St. Bernard when the alleged sex abuse happened.

Seeing Wilt’s name in black and white had a jarring effect on Robbins, a former altar boy at St. Bernard who chairs Point Park University’s psychology department.

“I served Mass with (Wilt) and went to grade school there,” said Robbins, 48, of Dormont. “I never had any experiences with him. I never witnessed anything. I feel fortunate that I wasn’t among the victims.”

The highly publicized grand jury report and shocking details in it figure to trigger painful memories for many victims of sexual abuse.

“These are events in their lives that they so desperately want to forget, want to remove from their memory,” said Richard Serbin, an Altoona attorney who has represented nearly 300 victims of sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania. “It’s going to take a while for (memories triggered by the grand jury report) to simmer with them.”

Serbin said one of his clients distanced himself from the church after being abused. Decades later, the man was inside a church for a wedding. He felt sick and had to leave, Serbin said.

Serbin suspects some clients won’t read the report or anything about it.

“Some of these things get buried in our minds,” especially if the abuse happened when someone was young, Beaver counselor James Flannick said. “Being exposed to coverage of the report can cause those memories to emerge.”

Flannick urged those affected by the report’s release to see a therapist.

“It could be one session, but talk to a professional. Therapy provides an arena where you can think out loud. Anyone having issues should seek professional help,” Flannick said.

Some will embrace the report’s release.

“Others will feel vindicated that finally someone gets it, and the public now knows that they weren’t lying, and they were telling the truth,” Serbin said. “For a lot of them, it’s going to be vindication, but it’s going to be painful.”

The report’s release could be spurring additional victims and witnesses to come forward. Within 24 hours of the grand jury report’s release, the state Attorney General’s Office had received more than 150 calls and emails to its clergy sex abuse hotline. An updated tally wasn’t available Friday.

The report could rattle the faith of some Catholics, but spur others to demand more of church leaders, Flannick said.

“We have a duty to act,” said Flannick, who is Catholic. “We have to fight for our church and that’s what some people intend to do. We’ve got to get the corrupt men out of the hierarchy. We have to get men in there who are faithful Catholics.”

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