NEW YORK • More than 300 "predator" priests in Pennsylvania are accused of abusing over 1,000 children across seven decades, a grand jury said in a devastating report that decried a systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church.
It is thought to be the single most comprehensive report to date into abuse in the US Church, since The Boston Globe first exposed paedophile priests in Massachusetts in 2002.
But while Tuesday's report led to charges against two priests, one of whom has pleaded guilty, the majority of those responsible are dead and the vast majority of crimes happened too long ago to prosecute, said officials.
The two-year investigation by a grand jury into all but two Pennsylvania dioceses turned up dozens of witnesses and half a million pages of church records containing "credible allegations against over 300 predator priests".
More than 1,000 child victims were identifiable, but the "real number" was "in the thousands", the grand jury estimated, given those children whose records were lost or who were afraid to come forward.
Victims were often traumatised for life, and driven to drugs, alcohol and suicide, the grand jury said. The only recourse was to recommend changes to the law and expose what had happened to make sure such widespread abuse was never repeated.
The pattern was abuse, deny and cover up... As a direct consequence of the systematic cover-up by senior church officials, almost every instance of child sexual abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.
PENNSYLVANIA ATTORNEY-GENERAL JOSH SHAPIRO
One priest forced a nine-year-old boy to give him oral sex, then rinsed out his mouth with holy water to "purify him". Another priest abused five sisters from the same family, including one from the age of 18 months to 12 years.
When the youngest victim of the family told her parents in 1992, a police search of the priest's home found panties, plastic containers of pubic hairs, vials of urine and sexually suggestive photographs of young girls.
The Church ignored credible allegations against the priest for years, and he died awaiting trial, said Pennsylvania's Attorney-General Josh Shapiro.
"The pattern was abuse, deny and cover up," Mr Shapiro said. "As a direct consequence of the systematic cover-up by senior church officials, almost every instance of child sexual abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted."
So far, only two new priests are being charged with crimes that fall within the statute of limitations.
One, accused of ejaculating in the mouth of a seven-year-old, pleaded guilty earlier this month, prosecutors said.
The other allegedly assaulted two boys, one of them for eight years starting from the age of eight. His alleged crimes continued until 2010.
The grand jury called for changes in the law that would scrap the statute of limitations for child sex abuse, give victims more time to file civil lawsuits and tighten legislation compelling people to report abuse they find out about.
"Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the Church have largely escaped public accountability," the report said.
Church elders were instead promoted and predator priests allowed to remain in ministries for decades after leaders learnt of their crimes as the list of victims grew longer and longer, Mr Shapiro said.
Between 5,700 and 10,000 Catholic priests have been accused of sexual abuse in the United States, but only a few hundred have been tried, convicted and sentenced for their crimes, according to the watchdog Bishop Accountability.