HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday ordered the release of a redacted copy of a highly anticipated grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse, one the court said identifies more than 300 "predator priests" but would conceal the names of a handful of clergy members who contend it is inaccurate or unfairly maligns their reputations.
The order by the seven-member high court provided a temporary victory for about two dozen current and former clergy members who have waged a furious legal fight to prevent their names from being publicly disclosed. The high court's decision will allow them to remain unidentified for weeks, if not months, while the justices weigh their arguments.
Some critics said that even a slight delay in publicly identifying any of the accused priests could enable them to escape criticism because public interest will wane.
In their 31-page order, the justices agreed that the case — and complaints by clergy implicated in the investigation — raises due-process issues. In doing so, they signaled frustration with both the Attorney General's Office, which led the two-year inquiry, as well as Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III, who supervised the grand jury's work and has said the full, unredacted report should be made public.
"There can be no doubt that the subject matter of the report is incendiary, and therefore, the stakes for individuals reproached therein are substantially heightened," Chief Justice Thomas Saylor wrote on behalf of the high court.
But the justices said they were not "of one mind" on the best way to address concerns raised by the petitioners who are seeking to block or limit the report's release, and scheduled legal arguments on those issues in September.
In the interim, they directed the office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro to begin removing identifying information about the petitioners from the more than 800-page document, which chronicles decades' worth of allegations of abuse and cover-ups in six of the state's eight Catholic dioceses.
A limited version of the report could be made public as early as Aug. 8 if all parties agree to the redactions. If not, a special master will be appointed to resolve differences, with an Aug. 14 deadline to release the redacted version, the court ordered.
"Our intent is to facilitate the publication — as expeditiously as possible — of as full a final report as may be released consistent with the protection of the petitioner-appellants' fundamental rights," said the opinion.
The clergy challenging the document's release represent a small fraction of those named. The high court's order confirmed for the first time that it identifies or implicates more than 300 "predator priests" who served in the six dioceses.
Jim VanSickle, a Pittsburgh-area man and grand jury witness who said he was abused as a teen by a priest who taught him in high school, said he was pleased to learn that nearly 300 abusers still could be publicly exposed. But VanSickle was conflicted over the fact that some accounts of abuse will remain shielded — possibly forever.
"It is a victory, although I still have a tear in my eye," he said.
Lawyers for some petitioners seeking to block the report's full release said they felt gratified by the justices' decision.
"The Supreme Court recognized that it was both possible and necessary to protect the constitutional due-process rights of a small group of wrongly accused individuals without undermining the public's legitimate interest in this grand jury report," said Stephen Stallings, who represents two such petitioners. He said the ruling presents "a path forward that protects everyone's interests."
Another petitioner lawyer, David Berardinelli, echoed Stallings' remarks and said he was "pleased that the court gave such detailed and reasoned consideration to our arguments raising matters of constitutional concern with regard to the grand jury process employed here."
The grand jury's investigation and conclusions have been at the center of a fierce legal battle that has played out for months, largely under court seal. The report is expected to document allegations involving clergy, their superiors, and others in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, and Scranton. The state's two other dioceses — Altoona-Johnstown and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — have already been scrutinized in past investigations.
Court documents made public in recent weeks show that the nearly two dozen former and current clergy members claim the Attorney General's Office trampled on their due-process rights during its investigation. Many also contend that the grand jury's report is based on unsubstantiated accusations that will unfairly sully their reputations, a violation of the state constitution.
Shapiro's office has pushed for the full report to be released and echoed that stance after the Supreme Court ruling.
In a statement Friday, the attorney general praised the court's order but said he would "continue to fight to ensure every single victim is heard and every priest, bishop, and church official is held accountable for their abhorrent conduct."