How The Clergy Abuse Scandal Is Affecting Catholics In Pennsylvania NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Maria Panaritis about the church sex abuse scandal that's roiling Pennsylvania.

How The Clergy Abuse Scandal Is Affecting Catholics In Pennsylvania

How The Clergy Abuse Scandal Is Affecting Catholics In Pennsylvania

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NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Maria Panaritis about the church sex abuse scandal that's roiling Pennsylvania.


To Pennsylvania now, where the U.S. Department of Justice says it is investigating Catholic church dioceses across the state. The federal investigation comes two months after the Pennsylvania attorney general's office released a grand jury report accusing church leaders of covering up the abuse of more than a thousand people for more than 70 years. We're headed to Pennsylvania next weekend to report from there, so we thought we'd call Maria Panaritis for a preview. She's a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and she's been writing about the clergy sexual abuse scandal and other issues for years. And she's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARIA PANARITIS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I'm going to get into some of the details of what you've been writing about in a minute. But I wanted to - just to start by asking - there have been so many major developments in this very painful story. Like, how would you describe the mood there?

PANARITIS: Well, last week was a particularly intense week around this matter in that there were two big breaking news stories that were happening almost simultaneously. The release of the grand jury report into abuse at six of Pennsylvania's eight dioceses in August triggered a very heated statute of limitations debate in the legislature. There were victim advocates trying yet again - they've been trying annually since 2002 - to try to get a change to state law that would allow them as adults to sue the Catholic church for what had been done to them.

And what happened last week was that this bill made its way into the state Senate for the final days of voting session, and it collapsed. It just went nowhere. And, within hours of that bill just dying on the floor Wednesday night, Thursday morning, everybody woke up to hear the breaking news that there was a federal U.S. Justice Department investigation into all eight dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania. So I think a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics alike are just shell-shocked and are wondering, when do these headlines stop pouring out?

MARTIN: What do you think people are going through?

PANARITIS: Well, there are a couple of perspectives that, you know, I've tapped into. I started writing about this on and off in 2002 as a reporter, and what I noticed was initially a lot of anger toward us, and how dare you bash the church? And that has faded significantly in the last several years as I've done more reporting, as more grand jury work has come out, as I've done my own investigative work on this. It is overwhelmingly a different story. I hear from people who describe themselves as Catholics who are now disaffected, who are angry, who want to side with the victims, who say, enough is enough with the bishops.

You know, people are wondering, my goodness - every time one of these headlines comes out, we're devastated. We're heartbroken. We're wounded. Were hurt. And then, six months, we hope, OK. It's behind us. And then it's back. And now it's back again. And now it's back again.

MARTIN: Do you think that this sense of anger, distrust - do you think it goes beyond practicing Catholics, people who are connected to the Catholic church? I wonder if it affects the community at large. Does it make them question what's going on in their world?

PANARITIS: I think a lot of people - it's very difficult for them to see what has now become document-based excoriation of systemic practices within this institution and not wonder what the heck is going on. There's a deep distrust, I think, and shock that this institution seems to have shown such a pattern internally of very, very bad behavior and no sanction.

MARTIN: Is there a sense that the federal investigation is a step in the right direction? Or is that optimism hard to come by right now?

PANARITIS: Well, it's hard to say, right? I mean, anything can happen. Nobody knows which way a federal probe will go and whether it will yield anything. But I remember talking to victims even a couple of weeks back, months back about the statute fight and having one say something on Thursday when the story broke about the federal probe, which is, I'm not holding my breath about a statute of limitations change in this state. The one thing that will bring me peace is if and when federal authorities finally decide to explore whether the Catholic church is an organized criminal network.

MARTIN: That's Maria Panaritis. She's a columnist with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Maria, thanks so much for talking with us.

PANARITIS: Thank you so much for having me.

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