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Pennsylvania Supreme Court approves release of 900-page grand jury report about Catholic clergy sex abuse

Monsignor William Lynn arrives for a preliminary hearing in his retrial of his child endangerment case at the Center for Criminal Justice in Philadelphia in 2017. Lynn is being retried after serving nearly three years of a three- to six-year sentence. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Friday that a landmark 900-page grand jury report about child sex abuse by Catholic clergy should be released as soon as Aug. 8 — but with some of the 300 predators’ names temporarily redacted.

A court battle has been underway for weeks over questions of fairness and transparency, with prosecutors and abuse advocates saying the results of an 18-month investigation must be released for justice to be done. Ten news organizations, including the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., and The Washington Post, joined in a brief urging the release of the grand jury report.

[Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is the target of new allegations of sexual misconduct]

But people named in the report said that they have not had adequate opportunity to protect their reputations and could be severely harmed as a result.

The grand jury report comes after several other explosive ones in Pennsylvania targeting institutional sex abuse — in other Catholic dioceses and at Pennsylvania State, among other places — and is expected to be “sobering” and “rather graphic,” Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico said this month.

Erie is one of the six dioceses reviewed in the report. The others are Allentown, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.

On Friday, the Supreme Court said that the protection of one’s reputation is a fundamental constitutional right but that redacting some names was a fair compromise. The order says the report names more than 300 people who allegedly “committed criminal and/or morally reprehensible conduct.”

The report says the “grand jury will identify over three hundred ‘predator priests’ by name and describe their conduct in terms of ‘what they did — both the sex offenders and those who concealed them[,] . . . shin[ing] a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.’”

The report is sealed, and it’s not yet known what time period it investigates. In Pennsylvania, victims of child sex abuse have until they are 30 to file civil suits and until they are 50 to file criminal charges. The criminal age was extended in 2008 from age 30.

The grand jury report is investigative in nature and does not recommend charges of any kind against anyone. However, prosecutors can choose to file charges.

The judge’s order said that if there are no challenges to the redaction process, the interim report and various responses will be released no later than 2 p.m. Eastern time Aug. 8. If there are challenges, they must be dealt with so the report can be released “no later than” 2 p.m. on Aug. 14.

It wasn’t immediately clear if those petitioning the court have any other options to delay publication.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Friday said in a statement that the decision was a “victory for survivors.”

“Our fear throughout this process has been that the entire Grand Jury report would be shelved and victims’ truth would be silenced. Today’s Order ensures that will not be the case,” he said.

On Wednesday, Shapiro sent a letter to Pope Francis, noting that the pope made a point of visiting survivors of clergy sex abuse three years ago when he was in Philadelphia. Some church leaders in the state “have failed to heed your words,” Shapiro wrote to Francis.

The reaction of the various diocesan leaders wasn’t immediately clear. Messages left for several diocesan spokesmen Friday evening weren’t immediately returned.

Anne Marie Welsh, a spokeswoman for Persico, said none of the six bishops are opposing release of the report. “Certainly there are likely individuals from each of the dioceses who are petitioners. They are exercising their rights as citizens, but on their own behalf. We are not involved with any, including not providing financial support.”

Persico on Thursday issued a statement saying while he wants the full, unredacted report to be released, he also can “recognize this is a difficult moment for everyone involved. Victims and their advocates have indicated that the delay of the report’s release is causing more suffering. After two years preparing the report, the attorney general is understandably frustrated. And we have seen the concerns of the petitioners who feel they have not had due process,” he wrote.

“I believe in our legal system and have confidence that those involved understand the urgency and the import of the work that must be accomplished. . . . My primary focus remains on victims, who await this important opportunity to be heard,” he wrote.

The release has been on hold since the state Supreme Court issued a stay June 20.

Some experts 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 far the net of legal responsibility for children extends 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, Hamilton said.

“The whole fight was: What does child endangerment mean? Now every diocese, every bishop and every vicar is open to responsibility,” Hamilton said earlier this week.

The brief joined by the 10 news organizations, urging the release of the grand jury report, acknowledged there could be some legitimate redactions but said the effort to seal the whole report was not fair.