Among the horrific revelations of a 1,356-page Pennsylvania grand jury report that found more than 1,000 identifiable child victims were abused by over 300 Catholic priests, one stands out starkly: Priests allegedly used church property to produce child pornography.
With one priest, George Zirwas, the grand jury says his diocese knew of complaints starting in 1987 that he purportedly sexually abused children. Zirwas was shuffled among positions until he was placed on “personal leave” in 1995, which lasted until he was murdered in Havana, Cuba, in May 2001. The report claims Zirwas and three other priests created child pornography in parishes and rectories using whips, violence, and sadism while raping their victims.
The three other priests were later charged in 1988 with the sexual assault of two altar boys. One pleaded guilty and the other was found guilty and both sentenced to years in prison; the third evaded charges due to a statute of limitation expiration.
In another case, a priest admitted in testimony before the grand jury that he had seen photos in 1980 of another priest, David Soderlund, sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy, and reported it to his superiors. Soderlund was removed briefly from the ministry, then returned for several years until he was put on administrative leave in 1989. Soderlund wasn’t dismissed until 2005.
According to the grand jury report, diocese records state that the church negotiated with law enforcement to avoid prosecution. Soderlund was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for possession of sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography in 2009 in Wyoming.
A number of priests cited in the report were found by church and civil authorities in possession of child pornography as well. In 2004, a priest ordained in 1974, Ronald Yarrosh, was found with a “tremendous amount” of child pornography. He pleaded guilty to possession and an unrelated act of embezzlement, but the church didn’t expel him until 2007, after a subsequent parole violation led him back to prison.
In 1981, Erie Diocese priest Robert F. Bower was found to have collected child pornography, but one of the four diocesan workers who reported it to a priest in church was fired. She, the priest’s secretary, and another co-worker retained the material in case it could be used in the future. When Bower was charged with possession of child pornography, the women took the material to the police, but the material was destroyed without additional charges being filed. The original charges against the priest were dropped because of mishandling of evidence.
The grand jury report issued its findings based on two years of examination of approximately 500,000 pages of documents from Catholic regions, known as dioceses, that cover 54 of 67 counties in Pennsylvania, as well as the testimony of dozens of witnesses. The report’s statements derive from what were often secret Church records, as well as witnesses, and over a dozen priests accused, most of whom admitted their abuse. Most of the alleged crimes have exceeded statutes of limitations to bring charges.
The U.S. Catholic church has spent and committed to spending nearly $4 billion in settlements and court awards relating to sexual abuse cases involving priests and other church officials over the last 65 years, according to a 2014 report; most of those payments came in recent years. Some dioceses have filed for bankruptcy protection, however, and avoided paying out some judgements.