A huge clergy abuse probe is about to go public. Could Pa.'s attorney general be on the verge of slaying Goliath? | Maria Panaritis

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The Reverend John T. Sweeney, center, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Westmoreland County to sexually abusing a fourth grader. The state attorney general is days away from releasing an investigative report about 300 alleged Catholic clergy abusers just like him across Pennsylvania. And yet, only a few have ever faced criminal charges through the years in this state.

Josh Shapiro is delivering a few lessons this week on the power of the people vs. the power of people with deep pockets.

They’re more like jabs, and they are coming from Pennsylvania’s attorney general ahead of the release of a criminal investigative report, days away, that will disclose clergy abuse by more than 300 predator priests at six of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses.

Shapiro’s office over the last year has taken a beating behind closed doors from church-affiliated lawyers who have sought to kill or neuter the report. Shapiro seems willing now, as the finish line approaches, to slap back at them.

It’s about time.

It  began on Tuesday, when Shapiro held a news conference to announce a conviction against creep-in-a-collar John T. Sweeney. The priest from Westmoreland County pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy who, now in his 30s, serves in the U.S. Coast Guard.

The victim was there and spoke. So were some of Shapiro’s deputies, who have overseen the two-year grand jury probe that is expected to detonate in the next two weeks with toxic revelations about the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, and Scranton.

Just a few days before, Shapiro’s office had been fighting furiously to prevent the investigation from being buried.

On Thursday, July 26, Shapiro implored Pope Francis to help stop a few dozen unnamed objector priests — for all we know they are bishops or cardinals, even — who have been trying, with lawyers bankrolled by God knows whom, to stop the report’s release.

 

 

Then on Friday, the state Supreme Court handed Shapiro’s office a partial blow/win.

The court ruled that the names of the two dozen complainants be blotted from the report, but that the report be made public by mid-August. Their reputations, the Men of God had argued, would be unconstitutionally harmed.

 

 

With revisions presumably already underway on the more than 800-page report, Shapiro moseyed over to southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday to show a rare conviction against one of the few priests that his office has ever been able to lock up.

But he said more than just that.

“No one is above the law and we will apply the law without fear or favor,” he said. “If anyone has information regarding child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church of Pennsylvania, please contact the attorney general’s clergy abuse hotline, 888-538-8541.”

 

 

That’s right: The man wants Even. More. Leads.

Even now.

How can anyone not be rooting for Shapiro and his investigators?

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia isn’t in the crosshairs now because two previous grand jury probes exposed how young souls were destroyed by predators who were protected by cardinals for decades.

Philly’s dirty laundry count in 2005, when a city grand jury slammed it: At least 63 priests – and probably many more – sexually abused hundreds of minors over several decades across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Cardinals John Krol and Anthony J. Bevilacqua “excused and enabled the abuse,” the grand jury found at the time. No one, though, could be prosecuted because time had expired to file charges.

 

A state grand jury under former Attorney General Kathleen Kane reported in 2016 that 50 abusive priests and religious leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese had done damage to “hundreds” of children over two generations. Again, no charges were filed because of the state’s paltry statute of limitations.

Kane’s office did charge three former leaders of a Pennsylvania-based Franciscan Friar order with conspiracy and endangerment for overseeing Brother Stephen Baker as he sexually abused more than 100 minors over at least two decades in Johnstown and multiple states.  One of Baker’s ravaged victims died before the case could go to trial.

>> READ MORE >> Sex-abusing priest caused suffering for a generation – and walked free.

You know what didn’t happen with any of those prior probes? No one tried to kill them with Supreme Court action.

This time, the church and its clergy apparently had the appetite for a fight.

The court kept the objectors’ names unknown, even as they attacked the very grand jury law that helps prosecutors catch bad actors. Their lawyers say the Attorney General’s Office trampled on their due-process rights during its investigation.

The Supreme Court plans to consider the priests’ legal arguments later this year.

“We shouldn’t have tampering of a grand jury report,” one prominent state prosecutor, John Morganelli, told me this week of exactly what the legal fight amounts to.

As I wrote this column on Wednesday, the Harrisburg Diocese, which had tried to shut down the grand jury, was suddenly magnanimous.

Bishop Ronald Gainer announced he would publish a list of 71 clergy members or seminarians accused of child abuse since the 1940s.

 

No doubt, he did so to get ahead of what will be a very unflattering, very ugly report.

Shapiro, meanwhile, tweeted something that reads like he’s finally throwing poison darts back at Goliath.

“This is long past due and only comes in the face of the imminent release of my Office’s investigation detailing widespread sexual abuse and cover-up by more than 300 priests in six PA dioceses,” he wrote. “Stay tuned.”

Correction: A previous version of this column misstated the number of grand jury investigations into clergy sex-abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.