HARRISBURG — The state Supreme Court continues to weigh whether or how to release a grand jury report detailing allegations of widespread sex abuse by priests in six of Pennsylvania’s dioceses.
As arguments come in from both sides, the head of a watchdog group that tracks efforts to hold the Catholic Church accountable for covering up sex abuse by priests said he’s unaware of any previous case where an appeals court intervened to consider whether individuals should be named in such court documents.
“This precise situation hasn’t happened before,” said Terence McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, a Massachusetts-based group. “There’s a strong case that can be made that we can expect bad stuff,” McKiernan said. “It doesn’t surprise me that people don’t want it released.”
An undisclosed number of people, including current and former members of the clergy, have asked the court to either redact or bar the release of the grand jury report, which deals with allegations in the dioceses in Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. This report follows a 2016 grand jury report detailing decades of sex abuse cover-ups in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese.
Attorneys for those fighting the release say the report contains “gross mischaracterizations, oversimplifications, and outright erroneous conclusions,” according to court documents.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in court documents, that state law allows those named in the report to file responses defending themselves.
When the Altoona-Johnstown report came out, attorneys for Bishop Joseph Adamec submitted a 10-page response arguing that the report treated the bishop unfairly.
Controversy over whether unindicted church officials and others ought to be named in grand jury or other publicly-released legal documents is nothing new, McKiernan said.
His group has tracked these disputes and pointed to a number of examples.
-- In 2003, a Suffolk County, N.Y., grand jury report into the church’s handling of sex abuse allegations was released to the media before it was shared with church officials.
-- Also in 2003, the Manchester, N.H., Catholic Diocese released a six-page grand jury response including timelines for how church authorities reacted when they learned of allegations against priests.
-- In 2005, the supervising judge of a grand jury report on priest abuse cover-ups in Philadelphia allowed the diocese to submit a 69-page response. That response included a “deepest apology” but also lambasted the grand jury report as “a sensationalized, unfair, and inaccurate portrayal of the Archdiocese’s response to child sexual abuse claims.”
In the case of the new Pennsylvania grand jury report, Supreme Court justices are considering whether the state grand jury law should be deemed unconstitutional if it deprives clergy members due process rights to clear their names. Court filings show that legal briefs are to be released to the public by July 17 and that additional court filings are due four days after that.
McKiernan said it’s difficult to imagine that the justices will try to extensively edit the grand jury’s report.
“I would be awfully surprised if they decide to wade into an extremely messy situation,” he said.