Current and former clergy members behind push to block report on clergy sex abuse

The office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, pictured above at the podium, conducted a nearly two-year investigation into allegations of clergy sexual abuse at nearly every Catholic diocese in the state. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG — Nearly two dozen current and former members of the clergy are among those seeking to block the release of a highly anticipated grand jury report outlining decades of alleged sexual abuse by clergy in Catholic dioceses across the state, according to a court document filed Thursday.

The revelation that clergy members are behind the fierce secret legal battle came in response to a push by the Inquirer and Daily News, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and seven other news organizations, which have together asked the state Supreme Court to lift its stay on the report’s release.

News organizations have called the report a “matter of extraordinary public importance.” The more than 800-page grand jury report, which was expected to have been released last month, details alleged clergy abuse in all of the state’s Catholic dioceses except for Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, which already were the subject of similar investigations.

The documents filed Thursday offered a glimpse into the intense legal maneuvering that could result in the report’s being permanently shielded from the public. They also offered the most detail to date about the people who have fought for months to keep their names out of the public realm.

That fight has occurred almost entirely under court seal, in part because it involves a two-year-long investigation by the Attorney General’s Office during which dozens of victims testified before a grand jury.

Officials in the six affected dioceses had said in recent months that they would not stand in the way of the report’s release. But abuse victims have nevertheless fretted that their voices will again be silenced.

Attorneys for those pushing to block the report say there is much at stake on their side, too.

Attorney Justin Danilewitz of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP on Thursday wrote on behalf of the nearly two dozen current and former clergy members who are seeking to block the report’s public release. He said the report is full of inaccuracies that would unfairly tarnish the reputations of the clergy, whose names were redacted.

Danilewitz presented examples of four priests whose stories, he argued, represent wider factual problems with the report. Those priests’ names, and specifics of their stories, were outlined in roughly two pages of court documents that were blacked out from the public file.

“Of particular relevance here, grand jury secrecy protects those, like the Clergy Petitioners, whose reputations may be unjustly harmed, including the innocent wrongly accused,” he wrote.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office led the investigation that produced the grand jury report, on Thursday called the clergy members’ legal filing “nothing more than a desperate attempt to stop the public from learning the truth about their abhorrent conduct.”

In a statement, he called the report accurate and said, “The airing of these facts should happen in public — not hidden behind redacted, meritless legal motions designed to further cover up decades of abuse and reprehensible conduct.”

A small group of priests separately filed court documents saying they would not object if the court released a redacted version of the report that blacked out references to them.

Yet another filing was almost entirely redacted. Efrem Grail of the Grail Law Firm argued that his client had “a unique issue” that the state Supreme Court must still consider. Releasing the report ahead of that, he said, would be an “injustice.”

“There is simply no reason why speed in this entire proceeding will lead to anything other than injustice and confusion,” Grail wrote.

The filings came in response to the effort by the nine media organizations that asked the state Supreme Court to lift its stay blocking the release of the report.

The high court was asked by a group of unnamed individuals and organizations to block the report’s public dissemination. At the heart of their objections is that they have a right under the Pennsylvania Constitution to protect their reputations and should be allowed to rebut portions of the report before it is released.

The justices agreed to temporarily block the report while they weighed those issues. The high court has not publicly established a timeline for making a decision in that matter, which could have far-reaching implications for the grand jury system in Pennsylvania.

While lawyers for the media organizations have advocated for release of the full report, they have said that if the justices need more time to consider other legal challenges, they should order that a redacted version be released in the interim.

Shapiro’s office said in a filing Thursday that it supports the public release of the report and does not oppose the media organizations’ attempts to see it.

In its filing, Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel J. Dye, who led the sweeping investigation into clergy abuse, said the people named in the report have had an opportunity to respond in writing. They have been given portions that are relevant to them and any written response will be attached to the report before release, he said. The six dioceses that came under scrutiny have copies of the full report.

“They are free to go further – to make any statements they wish, to appear in any forum, to go before any camera or microphone,” Dye said of the individuals named in the report. “That is not true for the grand jury…. The report itself is their last word.”