Anticipating the release of a state grand jury report exposing decades of mishandled cases of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, the bishop of Harrisburg on Wednesday ordered the removal of the names of former bishops dating to the 1940s from church buildings, schools and halls.
This was the first time a bishop has conducted such a sweeping purge of his predecessors’ symbolic legacies, although the names of individual bishops and priests involved in the sexual abuse scandal have previously been excised from church buildings.
“I express profound sorrow and I apologize to the survivors of sexual abuse, to the Catholic faithful and to the general public for the abuses that took place and for those church officials who failed to protect children,” the bishop, Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg, said in a news conference.
The move comes as Catholics in the United States have been reeling from a new wave of accusations that have brought down an American cardinal and revealed possible cover-ups at the church’s highest levels. Church officials knew for years about allegations that the former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, had sexually molested young men training to be priests in New Jersey, according to news reports, but failed to take action.
With outraged Catholics calling for a Vatican investigation into Archbishop McCarrick, the president of the United States bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president, released a statement on Wednesday saying that the accusations “reveal a grievous moral failure within the church.” He said that the bishops’ conference had begun to consider a course of action, and would “pursue the many questions” raised by the case “to the full extent of its authority.”
Archbishop McCarrick, who is 88, resigned from the College of Cardinals last week after an additional report that for years he sexually abused a boy he had known ever since baptizing him as a baby. The archbishop, a globally known figure who had led the Washington archdiocese, is set to face a church trial.
In Pennsylvania, Catholic leaders have been bracing for the scheduled release in August of what is expected to be a bombshell grand jury report examining the scope of child sexual abuse in the state. Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general, has said that the report would be a comprehensive look at accusations against more than 300 priests in six dioceses, dating back seven decades.
Bishop Gainer announced steps on Wednesday to address the failures. He waived the confidentiality agreements of abuse victims who had received settlements from the diocese, permitting them to speak publicly without fear of legal repercussions. He released the names of 71 priests, deacons and seminarians who have been credibly accused of abuse in Harrisburg since 1947, the period examined by the grand jury. And he said the diocese had posted new guidelines to prevent child sexual abuse (the American bishops adopted a set of guidelines in 2002 after an outbreak of sexual abuse allegations in Boston).
With his blanket decree, Bishop Gainer did not say whether all of his predecessors had been negligent in handling abuse. Among the former Harrisburg bishops are Kevin C. Rhoades, who is serving as the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Another is Cardinal William H. Keeler, who as archbishop of Baltimore was the first American bishop to volunteer to post the names of priests accused of abuse in his archdiocese. Cardinal Keeler died in 2017.
Bishop Gainer is the president of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the church’s statewide public policy arm, which has lobbied state lawmakers against expanding the statute of limitations in cases of child sexual abuse.
A spokesman for state attorney general, Joe Grace, called the release of the names of accused perpetrators “long past due.” He said that the Harrisburg diocese had pushed to end the grand jury investigation.
“Their proclamations today only come after intense public pressure and in the face of the imminent release of the grand jury report exposing decades of child abuse and cover up,” Mr. Grace said.
Bishop Gainer said in the news conference that he had intended to publish a list of accused perpetrators earlier, but waited because he had been asked by the attorney general’s office to hold off while the grand jury was investigating.
The grand jury report has been ready for many weeks, but its release was delayed by objections from people who are said to be named. The state Supreme Court decided recently to allow the release of a redacted version of the report. It will cover the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Another grand jury report, released in 2016, cataloged the scope of abuse in one small Pennsylvania diocese, that of Altoona-Johnstown, and found that bishops there had failed to notify police or remove the abusers from ministry.
News of that last grand jury report prompted hundreds of victims to call a hotline set up in the office of the previous attorney general, Kathleen G. Kane.