Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church: Why Is It Still a Story?

I have interviewed many survivors of child sexual abuse over many years, but this was the first time I had ever interviewed a survivor who was also a politician. State Representative Mark Rozzi sat behind his office desk at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. As he spoke he fidgeted with a small figurine he kept on his desk — a little dog with four heads, all snarling — a gift from a fellow survivor. We were discussing his long fight trying to pass legislation to make it easier for survivors to press charges and file lawsuits against their abusers.

Well into the interview I asked him to tell me what had happened to him as a child. “The abridged version,” I said. I had read his story elsewhere, but needed to hear it directly from him, even though I knew it would not play a big part in the article I planned to write. I figured that as a politician, he would have a well-practiced, pithy rendition.

Twenty-five minutes of unrelenting trauma later, we had still gotten only as far as high school. Then, just as Mr. Rozzi was saying, “I’m going to tell you something I have never talked about to a reporter” — at that very moment — there was a knock at the door and his executive assistant came in to tell us that another legislator was waiting in the vestibule. Interview over.

As I rushed to gather up my notebook, laptop and recorder, I realized I had no idea what he was about to reveal, but I had just gotten the answer to another question I am often asked: Why does the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church never seem to go away? Why is it still a story? It has been 31 years since National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic publication, broke the first story, about a serial abuser in Louisiana. It has been 22 years since I reported my first article about abusive priests (out on an Indian pueblo in New Mexico, for The Washington Post). Why is the news media still covering this?

The answer lies with the victims. Many, like Mr. Rozzi, are resilient and accomplished. (He is a businessman, a husband and a father, as well as a legislator.) Some are basket cases, unable to hold down a job or romantic relationship. But no matter where they are on this spectrum, the abuse they suffered is often so searing that it is the formative experience of their lives. Even if they have supportive family and friends, a financial cushion and plenty of time in therapy — all big “ifs” — they never entirely leave it behind.

I have met survivors who would prefer never to speak of it. But many more find salvation in telling their stories. This is not simply catharsis. They want to be assured that their abusers are known to the world and can never hurt another child. They want to know if their abusers had other victims. They want other victims to know that they were not alone, and that it was not their fault. They want to put their trauma to some use. Only then can they rest.

But they often wait years before they are ready to speak. They are too ashamed, or confused, or afraid of not being believed. But eventually they tell someone, and once they start speaking, some cannot stop. That’s why the sexual abuse story has emerged so slowly, over years, in waves. Abuse victims are like combat veterans: The war is long over, but the coping is not. Years after the Vietnam War ended, people are still writing memoirs and making movies, still processing what happened.

Of course, child sexual abuse is an issue everywhere, not just in the Catholic Church. The Times has written about it in schools, scouting organizations, camps, United Nations missions and other faiths. My colleagues on the Metro desk wrote a disturbing series on the cover-up of child abusers in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York. I have covered cases of sexual abuse in such a wide variety of religions that I have trouble keeping track: Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the most bizarre story of all — an international Christian cult called the Children of God.

But the scandal in the Catholic Church has proved far more extensive, and experts I have spoken with over the years have had a few theories why. One is sheer numbers — Catholics make up about a quarter of the American population and are the largest single religious denomination. The Catholic Church is also a hierarchical organization that keeps extensive records, so abuse usually leaves a paper trail (there was a long document trail leading to the pope in an article I wrote about a Wisconsin priest who abused as many as 200 deaf boys). Another factor, too, is the exalted position of priests, acting “in persona Christi” — in the person of Christ. Many Catholics, survivors included, have told me they had found it unthinkable that a priest could be capable of crimes against children.

And then there is the church’s requirement of celibacy for priests. While many live by and value it, for others it has led to covert sexual relationships with adults, double lives and deep secrets. Some also theorize that the all-male priesthood is a factor. While it’s quite possible that having women in the clergy would have instilled more accountability and sensitivity, child sexual abuse also happens in faiths with married clergy. It also happens in families.

Nearly every time I write about child sexual abuse, more people with more allegations come out of the woodwork. I get phone calls and emails urging me to dig deeper, telling me I have seen only the tip of the iceberg. I have heard from victims in their 20s and in their 80s, and every age in between. When the movie “Spotlight” came out, about The Boston Globe’s investigation of a vast cover-up that led all the way to the city’s cardinal, the phone calls and emails started again. A former altar boy from upstate New York asked me to investigate whether the priest he said molested him was still in ministry. A woman shared memories of nuns in a children’s home hurling buckets of cold water at her as punishment.

I try to respond to each one, but I can’t pursue most allegations. There are too many — and the bar for doing more articles on this is now very high. We do them only when it tells us something new.

The Pennsylvania story had a wrinkle I’d never seen before. A grand jury report found that in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, police officers, district attorneys and judges colluded with two former bishops to cover up allegations against priests. They wanted to avoid giving scandal to the church. Church files revealed that a judge even secured a job at the county courthouse for a priest who had been accused by multiple families of molesting their young boys. But a district attorney wrote the bishop an apologetic note explaining that the job offer had to be rescinded after the priest boasted about it and “devout Catholics” objected. It was all there, in the files.

Pennsylvanians were shocked by the report, which found evidence that more than 50 priests and religious leaders in this one small diocese had abused children over more than four decades. Among those reading were state legislators in Harrisburg. I interviewed nearly a dozen in the capital, all but one Catholics. I was struck by how so many felt personally betrayed to read that bishops had, despite promises, kept accused priests in ministry until recent years.

Pennsylvania shows how the sexual abuse story in the Catholic Church has evolved. The reporting now is often about accountability: Are bishops abiding by the reforms they agreed to in 2002, in response to the eruption of cases set off by the scandal in Boston? The American bishops agreed to report allegations to the authorities and to remove all credibly accused priests from ministry. They agreed to establish prevention programs in parishes and schools, teach children and adults about warning signs, and conduct background checks on employees.

Have they? The biggest church abuse-related stories in the United States in very recent years have been about bishops in Kansas City, Missouri and Minnesota who failed and eventually lost their positions.

Some bishops have told me off the record that they are stewing that colleagues who have failed to protect children make them all look bad — but then news is never about the planes that land safely.

The revelations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report proved to be a tipping point that revived Mr. Rozzi’s cause in the Legislature and prompted lawmakers to act. After years of stalemate, the Pennsylvania House passed a bill on April 12 that would drop the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges in child abuser cases, and extend the statute for filing civil cases to age 50. In many states, including New York, the statutes of limitations are so tight that survivors who don’t speak up while still young cannot file civil or criminal cases against their abusers. The bill in Pennsylvania would apply not just to cases against clergy members, but also schoolteachers and others in government positions. Its fate in the Senate is unclear: The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the insurance industry are set to lobby hard against it.

The day after my interrupted interview with Mr. Rozzi, I returned to his office to follow up. I was not actually eager to hear the rest of his story, because what I had already heard had been horrifying. The priest gradually gained his confidence by teaching him how to gamble on horses, plied him with beers in the rectory, showed him pornographic magazines, took pictures of him naked and eventually raped him. The same priest, Mr. Rozzi later learned, had also victimized his friends. Three have committed suicide.

When I asked Mr. Rozzi what he had been on the verge of disclosing the day before, he fished out an envelope he had brought from home. It had the return address of a recruiter with the Cleveland Indians baseball team. Lou Gehrig was on the stamp, and it was postmarked July 1, 1989. Inside was a letter from a recruiter inviting Mr. Rozzi, then a senior in high school, to a tryout.

“I put it away, and I knew I had saved it, but I have never opened this since that day,” he said, waving the envelope at me.

Mr. Rozzi said he had never made it to the tryout because the night before he had had another bout of violent, sick nightmares. He hadn’t slept. He sat on the edge of his bed, bawling, too exhausted to face the recruiter. It had been five years since the priest had abused him. On the outside, Mr. Rozzi said, he appeared to be a star high school jock, but inside, he was going to pieces. He did not speak publicly about his abuse until he was 39.

He told me that people sometimes ask him, “What do you think they took from you?”

He held up the envelope and said, “Here you go.”