Lawyers for Pennsylvania, the Catholic Church and victims of clergy sex abuse are battling behind closed court doors over an 800-plus-page grand jury report detailing allegations of clerical abuse in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses.
As of Monday, the high court’s June 20 stay remained in place, but some experts and clergy said the high-profile case could hold bishops and other high-ranking clergy accountable for endangering children.
Such a legal shift already occurred in the case of Monsignor William Lynn, secretary of clergy for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, who was convicted in 2012 in a groundbreaking case — the first in the nation to send a cleric to jail for not protecting children. Lynn’s conviction was later overturned on appeal, and he has been granted a new trial.
However, the question of how wide the net of legal responsibility for children goes remains central in that case, said Marci Hamilton, an attorney with Child USA, a think tank aimed at preventing child abuse. The state Supreme Court said Lynn’s new trial should be governed by the theory that superiors can be held responsible for endangering children under their care, even those not under their direct supervision, Hamilton said. The new grand jury represents another major chance to test whether high-ranking Catholic officials will be held accountable for children who were harmed, she said.
“The whole fight was — what does child endangerment mean? Now every diocese, every bishop and every vicar is open to responsibility,” Hamilton said Monday.
The grand jury began in 2016 to investigate allegations of clergy sex abuse dating back decades in the dioceses of Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Scranton, Erie and Greensburg.
This weekend, Bishop Lawrence Persico of the Erie Diocese told PennLive.com, a digital news site based in central Pennsylvania, that the report will be “sobering . . . is rather graphic, and it will be very detailed on what has occurred.” He said that clerical leaders will be held responsible in a way they have not been in the past.
“I think in looking historically at it you may see bishops named who probably in view of the way we do things now as compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it would not be considered acceptable, that type of action,” he said.
It’s unclear when and whether the report will be released, and if it is released whether parts will be redacted or the entire report will unredacted. The report could be released any day, but some attorneys involved in the case said it could be weeks away, as the Supreme Court hears arguments from dozens of individuals named in the report. Many of those opposing the release of the report, saying they have a right to protect their reputations, are reportedly clerics.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro inherited the investigation when he took office in 2017, the Morning Call newspaper reported. It said his predecessor, Kathleen Kane, started it as a follow-up to a March 2016 grand jury report that detailed allegations of abuse and coverup by the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Five years before that, the second of two grand juries investigating the Philadelphia Archdiocese ended, alleging unreported sexual abuse allegations against about 100 priests, the Morning Call reported.
Currently, state law says people who were abused before they turned 18 must file civil suits before they turn 30. Criminal charges must be filed before the accuser turns 50. State Rep. Mark Rozzi, a clergy abuse survivor, two years ago put forward a bill to eliminate time limits for filing criminal charges and also give survivors more time to file civil suits. The House overwhelmingly passed his bill, but it failed to pass the Senate after some senators challenged its constitutionality, Rozzi said Monday.
“It’s so ridiculous, for them to say: ‘We’re looking at this whole process while watching the system systematically cover itself up. Every time you turn the corner, someone from the church is silencing [accusers],” Rozzi told The Washington Post. “If this wasn’t the Catholic Church, it would be organized crime.”
On July 16, an abuse survivor filed a petition with the Supreme Court arguing that victims, specifically, are being harmed by the report not being released. In the petition, Todd Frey’s lawyers alleged that Frey was abused by a priest as a child in the Diocese of Harrisburg and was traumatized when diocesan officials allegedly told him to remain quiet.
“The emotional trauma of being silenced as a youth is now exacerbated by the Court’s June 20 Order, which replicates and continues that silencing,” the petition said.
Earlier this month, nine news organizations sued for the release of the report, saying state law requires that such a “matter of extraordinary public importance” be released publicly, the Catholic News Agency reported.
Officials with some of the dioceses have argued that the majority of known clerical abuses happened decades ago and that expensive payouts will harm current work aimed at helping the needy — including abuse survivors. Requests by The Post for comment Monday weren’t immediately returned, but comments in other news outlets shows church officials emphasizing the work they do for victims.
“While each survivor’s journey is unique, at the heart of helping each one is ensuring they have an adequate support structure. That is why we offer counseling within the Diocese and provide financial resources for outside counseling from licensed and qualified providers,” the Diocese of Harrisburg told PennLive.com
The Diocese of Allentown “continues to promote healing for victims and survivors by making available counseling and treatment as well as spiritual support,” the diocese told PennLive.com. “Caring for victims and survivors and keeping children safe are top priorities for the Diocese.”
This story has been updated.