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Whenever I read of clergy sexually abusing children, I wonder whether the perpetrators really believe in God and the Bible. If they did — if they truly believed they put their immortal souls at risk for treating children as fuck toys — wouldn’t they have stopped short of inflicting their crushing harm? Or, to ask a damning question more typically hurled at atheists: Where do these people get their morals from?

Of course, Christianity’s foundational texts make it clear that even thinking impure thoughts — sexual covetousness — is a mortal sin. Maybe that‘s the problem? If coveting “forbidden fruit” is itself an unforgivable moral crime, maybe acting on the desire cannot, in the minds of the perpetrators, make things worse than they already are?

This all by way of introducing you to the goings-on in the Catholic diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Washington Post contributor Mary Kane is from that area and has immediate relatives who were faithful to the Catholic Church their whole lives. So the allegations that have surfaced in recent weeks hit Kane harder than they did most outsiders. Her repulsion seeps through in her reporting.


I found myself poring over a grand jury report outlining in sickening detail the abuse of hundreds of children by at least 50 priests and religious leaders in western Pennsylvania’s Altoona-Johnstown Diocese — in my hometown. … I figured I might recognize a few of the accused or some of the churches. I quickly realized things stretched far beyond that.

The names of priests and parishes from my childhood appeared, one after another, all familiar. My grade school priest. Not one but two pastors from my neighborhood parish, a half block from my childhood home. The principal, vice principal and music director from my high school. A priest I once met with to consider officiating my wedding. The priest at the church my four nieces and nephews attended. The chaplain of the nearby Catholic hospital, where my mom volunteered.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Two of the priests, leaders at Bishop McCort High School, where my parents sent me and my three brothers in the 1970s to receive a quality religious education, were “sexual partner[s]” who worked together to molest a 13-year-old boy, the report said. They coordinated visits to his house. Once one priest had “satisfied himself,” the report said, the other “took advantage of a victim he believed to be compliant.” One had been my religion teacher.

As is customary in Catholic sex abuse cases, it emerged that

church officials knew of credible allegations against many … priests but kept them secret.

The famous Boston Globe investigation into the network of local priests who abused children — a story that was immortalized last year in the double-Oscar-winning film Spotlight — actually pales somewhat in comparison to what’s been going on in western Pennsylvania, at least in terms of prevalence. Writes Kane,

I tried comprehending the scale of the abuses. The Spotlight team identified about 80 predatory priests in an archdiocese of 1.8 million Catholics. The grand jury report [regarding the Altoona-Johnstown abuse] found at least 50 priests and religious leaders in a diocese of fewer than 100,000.

In other words, the Boston abuse scandal found one child-molesting clergyman per 22,500 parishioners. In Altoona-Johnstown, the ratio turns out to be ten times worse — one pious rapist per 2,000 followers. And those are just the ones who didn’t manage to keep their crimes hidden.

Through it all, I wonder where the Almighty was focusing His attention. Ohnever mind, I think I know.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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