Clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania: Media scramble to unearth bombshell report

In newspapers across Pennsylvania, many Sunday editorial pages were filled with angry protests against the Catholic Church and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The reason?

Everyone had been waiting for a huge grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse in six dioceses (Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Erie, Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton) across the state.

In this case, it's crucial to note that even the leaders of the various Catholic dioceses -- not to mention the victims -- wanted this 800-page report released. But then last Wednesday, the state supreme court ordered it sealed.

I’ll start with an excerpt from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, for which I freelanced briefly for in the early 1990s. They weren’t into religion reporting back then, but sexual abuse stories aren’t just about religion. They’re about the courts, about the police, about sex, money and power.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse and their attorneys were stunned last week at news that the report would not be made public. The grand jury investigation examined decades of allegations of abuse and cover-ups in six Catholic dioceses across the state, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg.
“They're hurt, and a lot of them will say to me, ‘Mark, this is what they have done to me from day one. When I finally was able to talk about it, they hired an investigator to silence me,' ” (State Rep. Mark) Rozzi said of other victims.

Rozzi was raped at the age of 13 by a priest.

(Altoona lawyer Richard) Serbin, who identified 106 suspected predator priests for the Attorney General's investigators, set the stage for many of the state's early laws involving child sexual abuse when he filed suit against the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese 31 years ago. The suit established Serbin as a victims' advocate. He said he went on to represent nearly 300 victims of clergy sexual abuse over the next 30 years.

If anyone doesn’t believe people are angry about this, try looking at all the comments (34 at present, which is a lot for this blog) underneath my Cardinal Theodore McCarrick post from last Thursday. The anger out there is as strong as it ever was.

As to why the report has been blocked, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said this:

What is known is that several individuals who are not being indicted but are in the voluminous report have fought back. Several filed motions seeking to defend their reputations by bringing their own witnesses and evidence to the grand jury and to cross-examine their accusers.

Reporter Peter Smith had some good background in this walk-up piece. These stories are tough to report on when there’s a horde of competing outlets and a secretive church apparatus in the center of it all.

Nevertheless, media from all over the place have jumped on this story including, on the political left, the Daily Beast. One thing missing in this current news blitz is any kind of large investigation by the largest newspaper in the state: the Philadelphia Inquirer. Its former religion writer, David O’Reilly, retired a year ago and doesn’t appear to have been replaced. With a such a huge story, this is not a good time to be without a religion specialist.

Smaller newspapers have filled in where they could, such as this nugget from the Erie Times-News.

All of the dioceses have said they do not oppose the release of the report, with Erie Catholic Bishop Lawrence Persico the first to state he wanted an unrestricted release. Persico, the bishop of the 13-county Erie diocese since October 2012, also was the only one of the six bishops to testify in person before the grand jury rather than submit a written statement. Persico was not under subpoena.

The Erie paper also said Saturday that it may be legal issues and not behind-the-scenes Catholic politicking that's holding everything up. The writer, Ed Palattella, isn't letting his location in the northwest corner of the state nor the size of his newspaper deter him from some scoops here and there. 

Readers may remember there have already been court judgments against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown for child abuse by church officials; the former dating back to 2003. A bill was floated to allow victims more time (than the current age limit of 30) to sue their accusers but last I heard, it never passed. 

Back then, the Guardian fingered conservative Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput for bullying Catholic state legislators on the issue:

The lobbying campaign against the legislation is being led by Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput, a staunch conservative who recently created a stir after inadvertently sending an email to a state representative Jamie Santora, in which he accused the lawmaker of “betraying” the church and said Santora would suffer “consequences” for his support of the legislation. The email was also sent to a senior staff member in Chaput’s office, who was apparently the only intended recipient.
The email has infuriated some Catholic lawmakers, who say they voted their conscience in support of the legislation on behalf of sexual abuse victims. One Republican legislator, Mike Vereb, accused the archbishop of using mafia-style tactics.
 “This mob boss approach of having legislators called out, he really went right up to the line,” Vereb told the Guardian. “He is going down a road that is frankly dangerous for the status of the church in terms of it being a non-profit.”

Then after four paragraphs explaining Chaput’s side of the story, the Guardian makes the Colorado connection:

Critics of Chaput’s strategy say the archbishop used the same tactics to successfully derail similar legislation in Colorado, where he previously served as archbishop. Joan Fitz-Gerald, the former Democratic head of the state senate in Colorado who had introduced the bill, recalled it was the most vicious and difficult experience of her life, with Chaput allegedly telling one of his lobbyists that he did not believe Fitz-Gerald would be going to heaven.
“He is the most vehement supporter of the secrecy of the Catholic church over pedophiles. He fights any authority over his own, even when it is a matter of criminal law,” Fitz-Gerald said.

Readers without experience following these battles will want to know that the key to Chaput's argument is his belief that it is unfair for governments to hold the Catholic church to higher legal standards than other public institutions -- such as public-school systems. The Guardian report does note this: 

Chaput’s criticism of the bill is centred on claims that the Philadelphia archdiocese already has a “genuine and longstanding commitment” to abuse victims; that it is committed to protecting children now; and that the new law would only apply to churches and private institutions, but still make public institutions like schools and prisons immune from similar retroactive civil suits in abuse cases.

In other words, was the archbishop asking for secrecy, or is he asking for public and private institutions to face the same level of criticism and liability? This was a crucial question in news coverage of this issue. 

Back to the present, I'm sure the state supreme court will eventually release the report, as the pressure to do so from many quarters is intense. The Associated Press just ran a story explaining some of the reasons behind the delay. Being that all sorts of folks will be off work next week during a Fourth of July break, I'm guessing we'll be hearing no more about it until the middle of July, if that. 

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