Rob Boston, Innocence Abused: A Lethal Combination Of Church And State Fails Pennsylvania’s Children, Americans United

Last week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane released a damning grand jury report about the rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese – and the failure of anyone in authority to stop it.

News of the report hit me hard. I was born and raised in Altoona. For 16 years I attended a Catholic church in that diocese. I spent eight years in a Catholic school appended to one of its churches.

The nuns occasionally punished us in ways that were inappropriate, but I never suffered the kind of abuse detailed in the report. Still, I felt like I’d been socked in the gut. As I read the report, I kept coming across the names of familiar towns, churches and people.

The report is not easy reading. It goes into explicit detail about the horrors inflicted on these children. Be aware of that if you decide to take a look.

I was especially disgusted by how the powers that be in both the church and the state failed the victims. If you’ve seen the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” you know how church officials reacted: They created, then hid, secret files on problem priests. They did not report them to authorities. They attacked the victims. They shipped molesters off to other parishes where, inevitably, the priests sought more victims.

In Altoona, Johnstown and in other communities, government officials simply refused to act. They were completely deferential to the church. The report discusses a priest named Leonard Inman who was known to be soliciting boys for sex. Altoona police began to investigate, but all it took was some pressure from the diocese, and they backed off.

“The Grand Jury finds that Inman was actively engaging in prostitution and oral intercourse with minors at Cathedral of Blessed Sacrament Altoona,” reads the report. “Altoona Police were aware of allegations and investigated the matter. The Diocese sought to protect the image of the institution rather than protect children or hold Inman accountable. No charges were ever filed in part due to the undue influence of the diocese over local officials.”

Things were so bad in Altoona and Johnstown, the report asserts, that church officials actually had the power to pick candidates for certain municipal jobs. At one point, a law-enforcement official asked why there was no follow-up in an especially egregious case of clerical abuse in Cambria County. A judge told him, “You have to understand, this is an extremely Catholic county.”

This is a pattern that has played out in other parts of the country. In Orleans Parish, La., a priest was accused of molesting several teenage boys in the 1980s. Investigators brought the matter to the attention of Harry Connick Sr., the local district attorney. Connick declined to press charges, later admitting that he didn’t want to embarrass “Holy Mother the Church.”

People sometimes ask us at Americans United why we are so intent on separating church and state. Religion, some of our critics assert, is a good thing. Why shouldn’t it be able to help out the government and vice versa? What’s the harm in letting church and state get a little closer?

Our usual answer is often along the lines of, “That’s not what the founders intended.” But there is another answer, one that is hard for many Americans to face but is nonetheless true: Sometimes religious groups do things that are not good – things that are, in fact, evil, vile and disgusting.

When a church does these things, when its top officials knowingly violate the law as surely as its clergy violated the bodies of innocents in Pennsylvania, only one institution has the power and the resources to hold it accountable. That institution is the state.

Yet when church and the state are linked, when they are in partnership, when they are reliant on one another and when a mutual dependency is fostered, the government can’t assume the aggressive stance that’s necessary to enforce the law. So the law is laid aside and eyes are turned away – even as more and more kids are victimized.

That’s a difficult lesson. It’s one my hometown has had to learn. We must take steps to ensure that no other communities are forced to learn it anew.

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