Yes, the Pennsylvania Attorney General Investigation of Clergy Abuse was Hard. But It Helped My Mom and Fellow Abuse Survivors.

By Jerri von den Bosch
Awake Leadership Team

When I look back on 2016, I realize what a strange and intense year it was for me and my family. I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in Pennsylvania at Alvernia University, and had reached the point when I had to decide on a career path. That’s when I made a decision to pursue an advanced degree in Christian ethics with a focus on what we call “public theology,” the intersection of politics and religion. It was also the year that I watched the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into clergy sexual abuse unfold as a lay woman in the Catholic Church, a student of theology, and the daughter of a victim-survivor. (That’s me with my parents in the photo above.)

In 2016, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro initiated an investigation into clergy sexual abuse in six out of eight of Pennsylvania’s dioceses. The investigation followed a grand jury report detailing sexual assault allegations and cover-up in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Evidence from previous investigations in the state implicated Church officials in dioceses across Pennsylvania. It was clear that a larger investigation would be necessary to create public policy that better supported victims of sexual assault in the Church and other institutions.

I’ve been thinking about that period a lot lately, as Attorney General Josh Kaul has launched a similar statewide investigation of clergy sexual abuse in Wisconsin, the state where I now live. A lot of what is happening in Wisconsin feels familiar to me, and I want to share a little of what a statewide investigation means to victim-survivors of clergy abuse and their loved ones.  

Reconciling My Beliefs

Back in Pennsylvania in 2016, I was deeply uneasy about what was going on with my Church. It was a time in my life when my education forced me to reconcile the beliefs of my childhood with the history of Christianity. It seems silly to me now, but I was learning, for example, that the saints we uphold as examples of miraculous faith are less magical, and more faithful. Did St. Francis really reason with a wolf? Or perhaps that story was the result of village folklore added to Francis’s story after his death. I was learning that there was almost always something else behind the story that I had been taught. The same was true of the investigation in Pennsylvania. There was more to the story of sexual assault and cover-up than we’d been hearing since the abuse crisis first unfolded in 2002. I was confused and disturbed by news of how abuse victims were being treated by the Church.  

And as a student of public theology I was astonished and embarrassed by what I saw as strategic and political dodging of the investigation by leaders of the Church in Pennsylvania, including the attempts of the Harrisburg Diocese to end the investigation, the legal battle over the public release of the grand jury report, and bishops’ attempts to discredit the attorney general’s work. 

Tending TO Deep Wounds

At the same time that this was all unfolding, my mom was taking part in the filming of the Emmy-nominated Netflix docu-series, “The Keepers,” which detailed the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Baltimore Archdiocese and the unsolved murder of a nun, Sister Cathy Cisnek. For Mom, this meant dredging up the details of the particularly cruel sexual assault and manipulation she endured by Fr. A. Joseph Maskell in the Archdiocese of Baltimore in the 1970s. 

Filming was a slow process because the directors, Ryan White and Jess Hargrave, wanted to honor each survivor’s story. This made for great storytelling, but it brought up a lot of trauma for my mom. This meant that my dad and I had to grow in patience. Mom did all the work that we think of as beneficial in processing trauma: she went to therapy, cried, told her story over and over.  But truthfully, it was not simple or tidy. Trauma can make victim-survivors seem irrational, cruel, or self-centered, when they are only trying to feel safe. And that can be hard on loved ones. My dad and I both learned to compartmentalize how my mom spoke to us. I began to ask myself: “Is this Mom being mean, or is this the trauma speaking?” It was almost always the latter. It wasn’t easy, but as a family, we did what we could to help Mom feel safe and loved.

While Church leaders in Pennsylvania were trying hard to block the investigation of clergy abuse, my parents and I were living daily with the deep wounds that sexual abuse leaves behind decades after a victim is violated.  

Still, my mom was thrilled to see the outcome of the filming. When the series premiered in 2017, I remember going on Facebook with her to see if there were any comments posted about the series. There were—about 60,000! I vividly remember her breaking down in tears, saying, “No one ever believed us before.” It was a relief for her to be understood, for the world to see a little of the horrors that she had experienced. 

Experiencing the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation was traumatic for my mom and her loved ones. But the good that came out of that trauma did not “re-victimize us,” it empowered us. 

Mom was full of energy when the Pennsylvania report was released. She shared everything she read about it on Facebook. She knew that the next step would be to act on the report and ask for change that would better protect the rights of survivors. She was excited! Dad and I, on the other hand, were slowly reading the entire report, trying to take in the terrible details. I was horrified to learn that abuse had happened at the Pennsylvania church where I worshiped. Dad and I were disgusted by the grooming techniques used by abusers, and the efforts to defame victims who tried to sue the Church. I spent the next year and a half only going to church on holy days. I didn’t feel welcome at the Communion Table anymore. What I saw in the headlines countered my education in ethics. I felt hurt by the church leaders sitting at the Table crying out about anti-Catholic bigotry when they should have been preparing seats for the victims. I felt like survivors and their loved ones were no longer welcome. Luckily, in 2019 I discovered Awake, which made room for me at the Table again and helped me refocus my pain. But the pain caused by church leaders’ actions is still in my heart. 

Still, when I look back on that time, I see a lot of good. I think of the connections my mother made through filming that allowed her to meet a large group of people, including other victim-survivors, their family members, and advocates, all of whom had caring hearts and wanted to see justice done. Many survivors are lonely in their walk until they find other survivors.

Through these connections Mom was able to summon the courage to speak at statehouse hearings in Maryland to advocate for the statute of limitations being increased on sexual assault cases, giving victims of violent sexual assault more time to process their trauma and take their attacker to civil or criminal court if they choose to do so. She participated in protests in Baltimore and Harrisburg. She was interviewed by several news outlets, both in print and on television. She met Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Rozzi, a clergy abuse survivor himself, who continues to work hard for laws that protect sexual assault survivors. Rozzi introduced her to more survivors in Pennsylvania. She even got to meet one of my heroes, Dr. Marci Hamiliton, a constitutional lawyer and expert witness on laws that support the safety of children. These experiences gave her the chance to think about the pain of her abuse, without being in pain. Her trauma was being honored the right way. 

“Re-Victimizing” Us? 

Recently the Archdiocese of Milwaukee released a statement about the Wisconsin attorney general’s investigation that said, in part: “We have concerns about the negative impact this could have on abuse survivors, because the publicity has the potential to re-victimize individuals.” 

I couldn’t disagree more. Trauma victims experience pain no matter what. But it hurts even more to try to ignore that pain. Besides, representatives of the Church have wounded my Mom and people like her. When is it ever appropriate for an abuser to suggest how a survivor should process their trauma? 

Experiencing the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation was traumatic for my mom and her loved ones. But the good that came out of that trauma did not “re-victimize us,” it empowered us. 

The Church is held to a higher standard today because survivors like my mom had the courage and support to safely tell their stories. Despite the painful nature of the topic, my mom will tell her story to almost anyone who will listen because she knows it is the only way to move toward a safer and more just society.

I get that this investigation is hard for many Catholics. It is embarrassing, and painful, and we’d rather it would just go away. But I’d invite you to think how it will feel for the victim-survivor. It’s never going away for them. From my perspective, the Church in Wisconsin is at a crossroads. We, lay Catholics and leadership, can call this investigation “anti-Catholic bigotry” and ignore the cry of the poor and wounded, or we can support this investigation—knowing that it is going to be painful but has the potential to bring justice and healing.

Without this difficult but necessary work, how can survivors like my mom feel welcome and safe to take their seat at the Communion Table?

Jerri von den Bosch is the director of Youth and Adult Formation at Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee and a member of Awake’s Leadership Team and Board of Directors. She graduated from Marquette University with a master’s degree in Christian Ethics.

3 thoughts on “Yes, the Pennsylvania Attorney General Investigation of Clergy Abuse was Hard. But It Helped My Mom and Fellow Abuse Survivors.

  1. Jerri, I am so proud of you. I know you Mom and Dad are but watching you grow up over all these years and seeing the loving, intelligent insightful woman you have become is truly awesome. Whatever happens, DO NOT STOP your quest. This is so worthwhile.
    Mary Sell

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