Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico responded to a litany of questions and comments about the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Pennsylvania Catholic Church at a public interview at the Edinboro University, Tuesday.
The interview was conducted by Debra Erdley, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and was part of a series at the university titled “Uncomfortable Conversations.” Erdley has covered the scandal since it was launched by the release of a grand jury report in August, and also previously covered the Jerry Sandusky trial in 2012. Following the one-on-one interview, Persico took questions from the gathered audience.
Erdley began the interview by asking Persico about what moved him to cooperate with the grand jury investigation, breaking ranks with his fellow bishops. Persico was praised by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro for working closely with the probe, which unveiled numerous accusations of sexual abuse across Pennsylvania. Three priests with ties to Titusville were included in the report, including Monsingor James F. Hopkins, who served at St. Titus church for many years.
Persico said that when he was initially issued the subpoena for church documents in 2016, he asked a law firm to perform an independent investigation into accounts of sexual abuse performed by diocese personnel.
“As I started reading this information — that I wasn’t aware of — I knew we had to do something,” Persico said.
The bishop made the decision to begin publishing names of those credibly accused to both “vindicate” the victims and protect the public. Further, he came to conclusion that the internal investigations and reviews the church previously performed when accounts of abuse came forward weren’t working.
“It would be like getting ourselves to police ourselves,” Persico said. “It doesn’t work.”
When asked about the potential damage caused by the scandal, which Erdley compared to the Protestant Reformation in terms of challenging the church’s authority, Persico said that it was better to go along with investigations and admit that the diocese was wrong rather than fight against it.
“You need to get ahead of it,” he said. “Because, otherwise, you’re just going to get dragged through.”
The bishop said that he supports reforms, such as a code of conduct for priests, procedures being put in place for reporting abuse and establishing a layperson review board as a way to win back trust.
“It can be a threat if we dig in and try to fight it,” he said.
Persico described the abusers in these cases as “real monsters” who took the youth of their victims.
When making the decision to publish a list of those accused, Persico released the names of priests and laypersons, something he didn’t believe any other diocese had done, because he did not want to make distinct groups of victims.
“Child abuse is an issue that needs to be addressed across the board,” he said. “It’s not just the priests. It’s not just the teachers.”
In regards to reception he’s gotten for his forwardness with the investigation, Persico said that he’s noticed many newer bishops have approved of his actions, while older ones have been more opposed. Persico compared the way the church was previously run as an “old boys’ club” that shielded one another from scandal. He noted that the seminary is more selective now than it had been in the past, and newer priests were more dedicated to the faith in his view.
“There is a definite change in these younger bishops, who want to see change,” he said.
However, in regards to the widening of the statute of limitations window for these abuse victims, Persico said that he is against the idea. A bill to suspend the statute of limitations made it to the Pennsylvania Senate in November, but was never voted upon.
Persico said that he was concerned about the potential financial ramifications the diocese could see from lawsuits should the statute be extended. Persico later told The Herald that lawsuits could deprive educational and charity programs within the church of funding, as well as cut off financial support to individual parishes.
The bishop also expressed concern about the potential constitutional challenges brought against a law that extends the statute, which could prevent victims from receiving compensation for a long time as it is fought over in court.
“I have victims in the diocese that are 87 years old,” Persico said. “[It’s too long] for them to wait for the legislation on the statute of limitations to go through the court system.”
Instead, the bishop supports an independently operated compensation fund which would provide money to victims. Persico clarified that this fund would use reserve and investment money from the diocese, and not utilize donations given at individual churches.
Erdley noted that the church has paid out around $4 million in expenses during the course and aftermath of the investigation.
After Erdley finished her interview, Persico took questions and comments from the audience.
One of the questions came from a victim of abuse within the church. Jim VanSickle, a Pittsburgh man who was abused in 1979 while he was attending Bradford Central Christian High School in McKean County by the priest David Poulson, of Oil CIty. Poulson recently pleaded guilty to two charges of sexual assault.
VanSickle asked what was being done for victims within the Diocese of Erie beyond financial terms.
Persico said that he wanted to reach out to victims to show that they were still welcome, acknowledging that many of them would have difficulty returning to the church.
“I’m not quite sure what it is yet,” Persico said. “But we have to have some kind of outreach for people who have been abused and have them know that they’re still welcome.”
Persico compared the Catholic faith to a “family” and has founded a response team to help parishes process revelations about abuse.
VanSickle told The Herald that he was satisfied with the response he received, and said that he felt it was important that the bishop encouraged voicing disagreement against “your pastor, your priest, your church.”
Persico faced a series of questions regarding a Robert F. Bower, a priest named in the grand jury report who purportedly lives in the Edinboro area, according to several audience members. The bishop was asked whether he was aware where the former priest was living.
Persico said that he was not, saying that Bower had been removed from ministry and was no longer permitted to function as a priest. He acknowledged that the diocese did not keep tabs on those stripped of their positions and that was part of the reason he felt the need to publish a list to inform the public.
“I don’t have policing power,” Persico told reporters after the session.
One gentleman in the audience asked whether permitting priests to get married could cut down on abuse. The bishop said that he had heard the argument, but did not believe one fix could solve the issue. He said that many of the abusers were laypeople who were married, but still performed their actions, nonetheless.
Looking forward, Persico said he was unsure how the church would be able to heal from the process.
“If I knew that, I’d be pope,” he said.
However, he said that Catholics were people of hope, and said that the public should focus on Jesus Christ, not any particular priest, as the source of salvation.
Ray can be reached, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.