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As Catholic sex abuse investigations begin, questions remain

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury’s investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The people seated were some of those affected by the clergy abuse. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(RNS) — “Our work in Pennsylvania has spurred a movement,” Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, said earlier this month as New York and New Jersey announced they would, like Pennsylvania, investigate child sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses within their borders.

Since Shapiro unveiled a grand jury report in August detailing decades of allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic priests, at least nine states have initiated some form of investigation of their own. The issue also continues to rage in Pennsylvania courts: On Monday, parents of children in the Roman Catholic Church and survivors of sexual abuse sued eight dioceses and their bishops to compel them to release more information regarding allegations.

But as new investigations begin, questions remain as to what exactly will be revealed, and how much of it will result in legal action.

A Religion News Service survey of 178 Roman Catholic dioceses and archdioceses in the U.S. (excluding those in Pennsylvania) suggests many internal church documents of the kind that yielded the staggering history of abuse in Pennsylvania have already been examined by law enforcement in other states after The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation in the early 2000s.

A map of the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical provinces of the United States. Each province is a separate color, with outlines of individual archdioceses and dioceses. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Experts also say that in many dioceses communications between law enforcement and the church have continued.

“It’s not a ‘gotcha game,’ and I don’t think the church looks at it that way,” said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI executive assistant director who worked with the Catholic Church’s National Review Board in the aftermath of the Spotlight scandal. 

McChesney said many dioceses recognize that involving law enforcement is “a very positive step” and that the church’s response to inquiries prompted by the Pennsylvania grand jury report won’t look much different from a probe of a corporation.

McChesney voiced frustration that officials hadn’t acted sooner: “Had law enforcement been more engaged 15 years ago, that would have been helpful.”

At least 24 of the 91 Roman Catholic dioceses that responded to RNS’ survey claimed their files were inspected by authorities in years past, either during a formal investigation or during bankruptcy proceedings, often resulting from a costly settlement of a child abuse case.

Others said they have made some or even all their files regarding accused priests public, posted the names of those accused on their website or launched independent investigations of their own files using law firms.

Besides those investigated in Pennsylvania and two Missouri dioceses that have already offered to share their files, more than 40 said they would cooperate with law enforcement if asked.

Still others are following the example of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which recently invited Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley to review all of its internal files regarding allegations of abuse by priests.

“Right now, we are reviewing our files to make sure we have turned over everything pertinent to cases reported since 2002,” read a statement sent to RNS from the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., which also said its files were reviewed in 2002. “Bishop (Joseph) Kopacz wants to offer the current Attorney General the opportunity to review those files even though they have already been submitted to the District Attorneys who would have direct jurisdiction over the allegations.”

Still, changes in state law could offer abuse victims the ability to file civil cases where statutes of limitations on criminal activity have run out.

Kathleen McChesney. Photo courtesy of Kathleen McChesney

“Some states have lifted the statute of limitations,” McChesney said, pointing to Minnesota and California. “While that didn’t bring forth criminal action against the perpetrators, it brought civil action against the dioceses or the religious community that was involved in it. So information that comes from these law enforcement inquiries could be used, ostensibly, in potential civil cases.”

McChesney was quick to note that church procedures guarding against child sex abuse have been updated and strengthened in the years since the Spotlight era. She predicted that many allegations uncovered by new investigations will likely fall outside the statute of limitations.

But Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said ongoing investigations may not go far enough to satisfy many abuse victims — or uncover the full truth.

“We want something that’s independent, something that has subpoena power, and something where testimony is compelled under oath,” he said. “Pennsylvania demonstrated that the church is not honest.”

By way of example, he said that prior to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, SNAP was only aware of 10 alleged abusers in the Diocese of Harrisburg. But that number grew to more than 70 when the diocese released a list of names in August ahead of the report’s unveiling.

Lennon also insisted that even among dioceses where documents have been released during bankruptcy proceedings, more transparency is needed.

At least 19 Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the United States have filed for bankruptcy protection over the past 14 years because of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, according to watchdog group Bishop-accountability.org. In May, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis reached a $210 million settlement — which lawyers called the largest of its kind in history — in a bankruptcy case that followed several clergy abuse lawsuits.

Tim Lennon, president of SNAP, holds a photo of himself as a young boy, in front of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Scranton, Pa., on Aug. 20, 2018. Lennon said his organization has fielded calls from Catholics who have pledged to stop giving to their church. (AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam)

Jeff Anderson, who represented the St. Paul-Minneapolis victims, said attorneys like him have known of the existence of files on abuse allegations and have been “excavating them since the ’80s with limited success.” Church officials can use bankruptcy proceedings “as a shield and a sword,” he said, to halt ongoing litigation and keep documents from exposure.

“Bankruptcy is a way for the church to control the information,” SNAP’s Lennon said. “It’s not shared — it’s controlled by the church.”

Lennon said he and SNAP are now calling for all 50 states to launch robust investigations, as well as the federal government. (Shapiro has said that a “senior official at the Department of Justice” reached out to him after he unveiled the grand jury report; the agency declined to comment on whether it is preparing to investigate.)

Nor is Lennon satisfied with the penitence the church has shown in Pennsylvania and elsewhere since the grand jury’s report was released. Posting the names of accused priests on websites and removing the names of bishops from buildings may be a form of  progress, Lennon said, but such gestures won’t answer victims’ desires for “some form of restorative justice.”

“What they need to do is the next step, which is sell the buildings and help the survivors,” he said.

(Emily Miller contributed to this report.)

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

73 Comments

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  • The Barbarin trial in France is going ahead in January. The Vatican has used technical excuses to shield Ladaria from having to participate. This is the example set by Francis, despite all his whining about clericalism – obfuscate, obfuscate. The Church in the US, following Francis’ example, will cooperate only when it is forced to do so.

  • Re: “But as new investigations begin, questions remain as to what exactly will be revealed, and how much of it will result in legal action.” 

    Actually there shouldn’t be many surprises. It’ll be discovered that abusive priests were shuffled around, sometimes shunted into “treatment programs” in the process that failed to do anything, then offended again elsewhere. It’ll be discovered that orders and dioceses pressured victims into being quiet, resisted investigation by local authorities, and in some cases encouraged those authorities to let them off the hook. 

    These are patterns of behavior that played out around the world, over the course of decades. More of the same will be discovered, I’m sure; there’s no reason to assume anything else will be revealed. 

    As for prosecutions, due to the Church’s success in putting things off and deflecting prosecution, in most places the statute of limitations will have long gone by, and even in cases where it hasn’t, offenders are likely already dead. So any actual criminal actions will be few and far between. 

    Re: “McChesney was quick to note that church procedures guarding against child sex abuse have been updated and strengthened in the years since the Spotlight era.” 

    Oh, I see. Is that why the Brooklyn diocese was just forced to shell out megabucks to victims of a catechism teacher whose abuses spanned 2003-2009? Just wondering. 

  • https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/9722/barbarin-trial-to-go-ahead-without-accused-cdf-prefect

    The “technical excuses” consist of the Vatican, a sovereign with whom France lacks an extradition treaty, refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the French court within the Vatican City, and refusing to extradite Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., a Spanish citizen, to France.

    These are not “technical excuses”, these are complete impediments to the French court trying any individual outside its jurisdiction in any country for any reason.

  • It would be nice to say same song, second verse. But as you rightly point out, it is just the same song, same verse over and over and over and …..

  • Yes indeed. It’s a widespread and pervasive pattern of behavior, too … frequently seen throughout the Church, and evident in many places around the world. It can’t viably be chalked up to “just a few bad actors.” In fact, it’s more or less universal — almost every diocese worldwide that’s been investigated by a government body, has been found to have done these things, as have a number of religious orders. 

  • It’s a widespread and pervasive pattern of behavior in organizations, not just religions, and not just Catholics.

    Among those in which the same behavior has been identified are hospitals, schools, CBS, the movie industry, and more.

    Apparently human beings suffer from some common misbehaviors.

  • Church officials have been aware of the abuse for DECADES, if not centuries. Their interest was always in protecting the church at all costs. An enormous number of facts demonstrate this. Consider just this one: church officials knew that stealing from the church was a felony, and so turned in thieves. But did they turn in sex abusers? Of course not.

  • In reality, Christianity/Catholicism should not exist since it is based on flawed history and theology. Without these flaws, there would be no RCC and therefore no priests and therefore no cases of priestly pedophilia. Ditto for all the other Christian sects like the Southern Baptist Convention and Seven Day Adventists where pedophilia and cover-ups have been a major issue. Judaism with its flawed history and theology is in the same situation. Correct the flaws and there would be no Judaism and therefore no rabbis and therefore no cases of rabbinic pedophilia

  • Two points stand out for me.

    One point comes from this statement: “Right now, we are reviewing our files to make sure we have turned over everything pertinent to cases reported since 2002,” read a statement sent to RNS from the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., which also said its files were reviewed in 2002.” The brouhaha that keeps making headlines is not just abuse since 2002, but the historical abuse that happened before 2002 and was covered up. Good for Jackson, Miss for turning over files since 2002. Now how about an in depth examination of earlier files by a Mississippi grand jury?

    The second point comes from this statement by the president of SNAP: “Posting the names of accused priests on websites and removing the names of bishops from buildings may be a form of progress, Lennon said, but such gestures won’t answer victims’ desires for ‘some form of restorative justice’.” Removing bishops and priests names from what was supposed to be a remembrance – a legacy – of their work in the Church is a form of justice. And some victims do feel a great vindication that this has occurred. Admittedly, victims should receive other forms of help and restorative justice. But having done this public admission of a failure of not just a priest but also of the institution in one time bestowing an honor on someone later shown to be unworthy – that has value to educate and make humble the entire community.

    I think a national inquiry into sex abuse would be enormously valuable – especially if it looked at institutions, both public and private, religious and secular, and if it examined sex abuse within families. But, not under this President and maybe not in these times. I am concerned it would just become a partisan political game. I certainly don’t believe the modern news media would help – they would simply reduce everything to politics.

  • And not even a song, and the verses don’t rhyme.

    The only word I can think that rhymes with teachers, as in…

    “What about them public school teachers?”

    Is…wait for it…

    PREACHERS.

  • better questions:

    Why did the hierarchy get hoodwinked into calling all abuse “pedaphilia”, hiding the fact that the large majority of cases were same sex abuse cases of post-pubescent young men?

    Why do the seminaries continue to let in fragile, immature, gender and sexual identity confused young men?

    How can seminary life have allowed such flagrant homosexual behavior, predatory or otherwise?

    How can homosexual bishops continue to operate and advance in influence?

    Since suicide has now been found unlikely, who killed whistle blowing Fr. Joseph Moreno from the Buffalo Diocese, who compiled details of the abusing, homosexual network in that diocese?

    What the heck happened to the jesuits?

  • Having sex with a thirteen year old, no matter how much you want to pretend it is something else, is STILL having sex with a child.

    As for those “homosexual networks”, all you are doing is denying the sacraments of a vocation, and the process of discernment.

    But you knew that.

  • It’s a homosexual act.

    whether with a 13, 14, or 17 year old.

    And these acts are characteristically different from abusing a 2 year old.

    The pink mafia desires greatly to have the public think that priestly abuse is about priests abusing little children.

  • the category name of pedaphilia is used to try over explain the matter of abuse.

    it conceals more than it reveals. And that’s the sign of a bad category name…

    it’s useful to the back scratchers though, especially for audiences who have switched off their frontal lobe.

    It also provides cover for the pervs seeking their twinks.

  • Bob, granting what you say about the lack of an extradition treaty, does the Pope nevertheless have the power to compel Abp Ladaria to participate in the trial? And if so, why not do so?

  • Pervs in the catholic priesthood? Is that what you are referring to?

    After tens of thousands of boys, girls, men, and women, priests and lay people (lay people— ha ha— get it?) have come forward, all the deflection in the world is not going to change the fact that the public knows it is not unusual for Catholic priests to have sexual relations with adolescent boys, or girls, or small children, adults, men women, or each other.

    Nor is it unusual for certain hyper Catholics to try to blame mythical Big Gay for it. You’ve been doing it for centuries. Why change anything now?

  • Sure. That must be it. Judases. 2000 years of judases. The pardoner in Chaucer, the piarists, the burners of heretics and witches and Jews, the pogromists, the wars of religion over centuries, the molesters, the abusers, the castrators of boys, and the enablers.

    It’s sounds like you are still trying to deflect attention, except that this time, it’s on St. Judas the Patsy, without whom there would have been no Christianity.

  • As usual, Bob defends the indefensible and excuses the inexcusable.Yes, abuse does exist elsewhere, but the abuse and coverups in the RCC are worse than elsewhere.

  • And the clergy abuse/coverup mess is not confined to the US. It has also been a big prohlem in Canada, Mexico, Chile, Ireland, Australia, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and other countries.

  • 2 things seem to always surprise the lightly formed and superficially living Catholics.

    To find Judases in their midst

    And to find the Cross in their ordinary day.

    These send the unsure footed into “emotional storms”.

    They have no peace in them. No interior life. No constant conversation with God.

  • Several things seems to perpetually surprise you.

    Catholic priests will have sex with anything that moves, other catholic priests, perhaps aware that their own sexual sins are vulnerable, will enable and protect them…

    And hyper Catholics will do whatever they can to deflect blame on to innocent others for the…wait for it…

    SINS OF THE FATHERS.

  • What surprises me is how much money homosexual priests have cost the Church in terms of abused souls, financial payouts, angst, lost members, reputation.

  • It is good to know- not that anyone didn’t already know it- that apparently, the biggest item of concern to you is the money the sexual abuse by priest has cost the church. Just ask Cardinal Dolan.

    What surprises me is centuries of sexual abuse, directed at pretty much anything that moves, by the priests of the Catholic Church, called to the holy church by god itself,

    and the centuries of ignoring it, and the centuries of trying to cover it up, and the centuries of trying to deflect attention onto innocent othersb and the many years and billions of dollars…

    And the further deflections onto innocent others in a desperate attempt to appeal to bigotry, rather than the obvious.

    No, on second thought, I’m not surprised at all. This is hardly news.

  • Legally, no.

    As a matter of discipline, yes.

    But I doubt he would so.

    This is something that we don’t see in Anglo-American law, a private or civil prosecution.

    The French legal system opened a case against Archbishop Philippe Barbarin, thoroughly investigated the matter, and closed the case.

    This prosecution is by ‘La Parole Libérée’ (The Liberated Word), an association similar to the American SNAP.

    Their attorney, Nadia Debbache, is a well-known anti-cleric who has made some statements that make it clear she is on a fishing expedition, such a “Everyone at his level has participated, including within the Vatican.”

    She is member of a U.S.-based organization with ties to SNAP:

    https://www.ecaglobal.org/eca-assembly/

    whose work has been primarily aimed at attacking the Catholic Church as NGO at the UN:

    https://www.ecaglobal.org/eca-at-the-united-nations/

    “To hold accountable the Roman Catholic Church in multiple arenas: providing data, mobilizing public opinion, by judicial and legislative actions to end clerical abuse, and to provide justice to victims.”

    It has all the hallmarks of anti-Catholic organization and the “trial” all the hallmarks of a show trial for propaganda purposes.

  • What does not surprise me is the unsupported allegation of “centuries of sexual abuse, directed at pretty much
    anything that moves, by the priests of the Catholic Church” by a homosexual in the Bay Area who has declared the Catholic Church his Enemy #1.

    When it is pointed out that:

    – he knows less about the Catholic Church then he does about chastity;

    – that the Catholic Church has never denied, and in fact documents in the New Testament itself, that evil exists within the organization called the Church;

    – that the rates of this offense are lower than among American school teachers, rabbis, and ministers;

    we hear about “whataboutism”.

    You seem to be having a good time annoying Mark Shea at his website.

    Why not afflict him?

  • So, assuming the perpetrator is male, the sex of the victim is irrelevant?

    That says something about you, not about the nature of offense.

  • A “national inquiry”?

    By whom?

    These crimes are local, not national, and every pundit, nutcase, lawyer, politician, mind maven, fuzzball, and other persons with axes to grind have all weighed in.

    We all know it is a crime.

    We all know to report it.

    All that’s left is to prosecute the offenders and anyone who hides it.

    That doesn’t require a “national inquiry”.

  • what was my first example in my long list: “abused souls”

    Costs are of different types.

    One needs to have a broad-gauged view of the problem of abusing homosexual priests.

  • What surprises me is that after all the evidence…some people still want to pretend the problem is “availability”, “lack of welcoming” “clericalism” “celibacy”

  • Child rape is child rape.

    Child rape is a felony.

    Your word games tell us everything we need to know about you, but are irrelevant to the issue that the catholic church has a long history of attracting, facilitating and protecting child rapists.

    The church lets in sexually confused men because the church’s perpetual sexual guilt trips create sexually stunted people, and celibacy requirements then attract those people to the priesthood.

  • Chasing a 17 year old young man around the vesting room is different than perving a 1 year old girl in a crib.

  • If it as about power you’d see a comparable split between the two genders.

    But you don’t.

    Abuse is about disordered desires.

    Coverups are about power.

  • Well, the point is to find those who did commit the crimes and did hide it and assist those who are still suffering from the secret. The bishops have done a lot to reduce the incidence of child sex abuse for the future – but haven’t dealt with justice for those abused in the past and I have no idea if what they are doing now really provides restorative justice for those who have recently been or will be abused.

    What we do know is that sexual abuse is still out there – and we are exposing it in forms that used to be hidden. This is particularly true of the abuse of power – an issue when a bishop/cardinal seduces a seminarian or when a movie mogul makes compliance with sexual overtures a step in career advancement. We also have date rape, campus rape, and incidents like what Kavanaugh is accused of – more stories coming out of the antics at privileged prep schools and drunken behavior at frat parties.

    The national inquiries in England, Ireland, Australia, now Germany and Denmark – show the value in putting together the big picture.

  • Were the point to find who committed crimes – be it abuse or hiding abuse – every investigation would be done locally since every crime was an offense in a specific jurisdiction.

    I have taken a very good look at the “national inquiry” in Australia.

    Its value was allowing sh-t to achieve the status of Shinola, nonsense to be treated as fact, and complete fakes like Kieran Tapsell to make money writing books and giving speeches.

    It was basically an anti-Catholic enterprise in a nation with a long and sordid history of anti-Catholicism.

    There is no mystery to dealing with abuse.

  • Tired of JoeMyGod?

    We know everything we need to know about you from “the catholic church has a long history of attracting, facilitating and protecting child rapists.”

    No, it does not.

    That line, of course, is the mantra over at JoeMyGod where the lines are forming because the Catholic Church is getting serious about enforcing a centuries old ban on ordaining homosexuals.

    In this case the overwhelming (80+%) percentage of the offenses that were male-on-male is significant, and it is significant no matter what mud is thrown.

  • In reality, Christianity/Catholicism should not exist since it is based on flawed history and theology. No Christianity, no priests or preacher pedophiles. Mission accomplished.

  • Better to have what is done in the Eastern Rites, have normal straight men marry first then go into the seminary. The closest in the west that we have to married clergy in the western Catholic Church is first permanent deacons and the Chair of St. Peter, (Anglican usage).

  • Criticism of the church hierarchy is not “anti-Catholicism,” and Catholics are among the critics. Bob is simply an apologist for patriarchalist authoritarianism.

  • To correct you, would it surprise you that because of “rational thinking”, humanity barely survived the most bloodiest century called the 20th.

  • It’s disordered desire of the flesh that first moves men.

    See the story of David. He let his eyes drink in the beauty of Bathsheba; he approached her, took her.

    And then he used a power play to cover the matter over.

    God reaches us in Scripture how we tend to work.

  • I would rather have the stable presence of faith then the so-called “rational thinking” which can be very unstable.

  • Well, he has treated one particular group of Christians “wonderful.” But that particular group does not represent the entire “Christian Faith community.” The very notion that the Christian community of the U.S. is represented by that particular group is an abomination to those who are not part of that group That particular group has a view of sexuality and sex abuse that is not representative of most Christians, much less most Americans. Even more, the sexual ethics of that President do not represent the sexual ethics of most Christians, including the one particular Christian group that so enthusiastically supports him.

  • It is not antiCatholic anything going on. The CHURCH NEEDS to be cleaned up. As a Catholic I welcome this clean up.

  • Then there is the stability of the Great Kibosh of All Religions:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten
    seconds: Priceless !!!

    As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    There was no Gabriel i.e.Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    Fat Buddhas here, skinnyBuddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on
    Buddhism.

    A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings
    (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that
    we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early
    philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu wasimmaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for
    eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Same tired old and off-topic spam. Re Lao-tzu. Legends grow up around many great men, e.g. George Washington and the cherry tree and his throwing a dollar across the Potomac. Also the presidency differs in many ways from 200 years ago. That does not mean that it is rational to conclude he did not exist or that all the things written about him are mere legends or that he had no wisdom to impart to his countrymen.

  • Continuing the Great Kibosh:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe
    Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day
    Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the
    first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah
    Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being
    created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed
    had his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around) and of course the jinn.

    Jesus
    and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern
    day demon of the demented. (As does Obama and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan) (As do the “Trumpers”).

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to
    do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty
    wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same
    to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals.
    Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders
    and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • The RCC has proven they are best at protecting pedophiles. If this were any for profit organization, they would have been shutdown long ago. I for one have moved away from the RCC, (a life long member from 1957). But I cannot tolerate the lack of compassion and morality with RCC leadership. I will never give another dime to these corrupt individuals and church.

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