Pennsylvania court to hear objections to church abuse report
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s highest court on Friday decided against immediately releasing an investigative grand jury’s report into allegations of decades of child sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses, instead saying it would hear arguments from priests and others that making it public would violate their constitutional rights.
The state Supreme Court gave lawyers for those who object to being named in the nearly 900-page report and want to prevent its disclosure until Tuesday to lay out their arguments in writing, and the attorney general’s office until July 13 to respond.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro has said he wants the report made public as soon as possible, noting that unindicted people who were cited in the report in a way that “could be construed as critical” were given an unrestricted right to file responses that are expected to be released along with the report. His spokesman declined comment on the court orders.
More than two dozen current and retired members of the clergy have argued to the court that the report is replete with errors and mischaracterizations that would violate their constitutional rights to due process and to protect their reputations.
The court has not made their identities public, and many of their arguments have been made under seal.
But 14 orders posted online late Friday by the high court revealed new information about the specific complaints.
Several criticized the Grand Jury Act, saying it unconstitutionally denied those who have not been charged with crimes the ability to see and challenge the evidence against them. They claimed the report drew inaccurate conclusions about them without the “preponderance of the evidence” required by law.
Some of the criticism was highly specific to individual people, including a dead man referred to as a child sexual abuse offender, a man who the report said should have told a school district that a priest was previously the subject of an abuse or sexual misconduct investigation involving children, a priest who said the report would falsely allege he witnessed child sexual abuse by another priest and did not call police, and a person who said the report would disclose “confidential, privileged medical/psychotherapist evaluation and treatment communications and descriptions,” violating five statutory and constitutional rules.
Another man claimed the report would say he did not report an allegation of sexual misconduct to a bishop, but instead told the victims’ mother to have her daughters contact him themselves. He argued there was not sufficient evidence to support that conclusion.
University of Pennsylvania professor Marci Hamilton, a leading expert on child sexual abuse and law, said she views the court’s action as “an abundance of caution.”
“Once the grand jury report is released, it’s very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle,” Hamilton said, but added state law limits what the challengers can do to prevent its release.
“The law says they have a right to write a response that can then be published with the report. It does not say they have the right to suppress it,” she said.
The justices also directed the grand jury supervising judge to handle disputes about grand jury secrecy within the filings, and said blacked-out versions will be made public. The high court will not hold oral argument, instead resolving the disputes based on the written filings. There was no indication when they will rule.
The orders posted Friday did not directly address a request by The Associated Press and other news organizations to make the report public.
The court first held up the report’s release in an order June 20, followed by a document in which they laid out the issues.
A two-year state grand jury investigation targeted the dioceses of Erie, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton, which collectively minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics.
Victim advocates have said they expect it to be one of the most exhaustive examinations by any state of clergy abuse. The grand jury interviewed dozens of witnesses and examined more than half a million pages of internal documents related to allegations, according to court papers.
Grand juries had previously found widespread sex abuse by priests in the state’s two other Roman Catholic dioceses, including in a landmark report in Philadelphia in 2005.
In 2016, a state grand jury report on child sexual abuse at the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese disclosed allegations of abuse by more than 50 priests and other clergy members against hundreds of children going back decades.
In the following days, prosecutors set up a hotline to solicit information from other victims, and the avalanche of callers prompted prosecutors to impanel the grand jury whose findings are in limbo.