Pa. Supreme Court explains why it blocked release of clergy sex-abuse report, citing challenges from 'many' people

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Bishop Mark Bartchak of The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown (Pa.) holds a 2016 service for victims of sexual abuse by clergy. On Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said it had agreed to stay the release of a grand jury report into sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses because of challenges filed by “many individuals” who are named in the report.

HARRISBURG — After being criticized for halting the release of a long-awaited grand jury report into clergy sex abuse, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday offered the first explanation of its decision, saying it needs to resolve legal challenges by “many individuals” named in the report who fear their reputations will be harmed.

In a five-page unsigned opinion, the justices offered no clues as to the identity of the petitioners, or the specifics about the circumstances of their objections. Instead, they explained that concerns had been raised about the secretive nature of the grand jury process and the ability of some people to address or respond to the allegations contained in the more than 800-page document, which details decades of abuse in six of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses.

“Most, if not all, of the petitioners alleged that they are named or identified in Report No. 1 in a way that unconstitutionally infringes on their right to reputation and denies them due process based upon the lack of a pre-deprivation hearing and/or an opportunity to be heard by the grand jury,” the court wrote, later adding: “A number of the petitioners asserted that they were not aware of, or allowed to appear at, the proceedings before the grand jury.”

The opinion was the latest turn in a state Attorney General’s Office investigation simmering behind closed doors for nearly two years and that had been expected to be publicly unveiled this month. Scores, if not hundreds, of people were believed to be named in the report for either committing or somehow enabling or ignoring decades of clergy sex abuse of children across a wide swath of the state.

The report is expected to cover all of the Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania except for Altoona-Johnstown and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which had previously been scrutinized by grand juries. The bishops in the dioceses included in the report —  Allentown, Scranton, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Greensburg, and Erie — have said publicly that they would not fight the report’s release.

Others weren’t so willing. The efforts to block the report’s release surfaced last month in an opinion by the judge overseeing the grand jury, Norman A. Krumenacker III. He rejected those bids — also without naming the parties — but in doing so opened the door to the Supreme Court appeal.

According to its filing, Krumenacker “found that this report may be construed as critical of certain unindicted individuals, and he has permitted living individuals so named or implicated to submit responses to material allegations in the report.” He gave them until last Friday to submit those responses.

The high court said it now needed appropriate time to weigh those petitions and determine if the challengers’ rights are being infringed. It said, among other things, that it had not yet received the grand jury report. Its opinion did not lay out a timetable for when the report could be released, but said Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office did not object to a short-term stay.

The justices wrote that Krumenacker had indicated that the report could have been published as early as last Saturday, even though legal appeals might not yet have been resolved.

In a statement Monday, Shapiro spokesperson Joe Grace said, “While we did not oppose giving the court a matter of days to conduct a careful review and promptly rule on these motions, that time is quickly expiring.” He also said the attorney general “seeks to have the stay lifted expeditiously.”

The opinion by the high court followed days of criticism by victims and advocates, who argued that they were being silenced yet again after years of feeling helpless and scared to speak out.

Among them was Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), who testified before the grand jury about the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a priest.

“It’s just like it’s been since Day One with me, kick us to the curb. Let the trash on the curb get old, maybe we’ll rot and die and go away. We’re not going away. I’m not going away, and I can promise that to all the victims across the commonwealth,” Rozzi said last week. He has been pushing either to extend the state’s statute of limitations or provide a two-year reprieve from it so that older victims can sue for abuse that occurred decades ago.