HARRISBURG – For more than two years, dozens of victims have filed into a secret grand jury room in Pennsylvania, faced a group of strangers, and recounted how they were sexually abused as children by Catholic priests, their rapes and molestation buried by church leaders.
One, a former Erie priest who testified that he was molested when he was a teenager, called the experience cathartic. Another victim did not fare well after testifying. She attempted suicide and from her hospital bed implored the grand jurors to complete their investigation and make their findings public, according to a source who had been briefed on her account.
Later this month, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro is expected to release a landmark report by that grand jury that will detail, in stark and stomach-turning terms, decades of abuse and cover-ups in every Catholic diocese in the state except Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, which have already undergone such scrutiny.
It is, legal experts say, among the most expansive investigations into clergy abuse in the country, one that will provide a panoramic view into the church's handling of the scandal, dating back decades, across most of the state.
According to one of the few court documents that has been made public, the case has drawn dozens of witnesses and nearly a half-million pages of internal church documents. It has homed in on alleged crimes and misconduct by "individuals associated with the Roman Catholic church, local public officials and community leaders" — and could implicate hundreds of people.
As a result, the more than 800-page report has become the target of an intense but secret legal battle, as a group of unnamed individuals have waged a fight under court seal to delay its public release.
The grand jury report is not expected to include criminal charges, according to people familiar with the content.
Yet it is bound to have sweeping legal and political implications, including reviving the deeply emotional fight in the legislature — during a critical election year — over whether victims of long-ago abuse should have the chance to sue their abusers and the people and institutions who covered it up.
"I'm not a politician, but if I was, I'd be pretty scared," said James Faluszczak, a former priest in the Diocese of Erie who was among the victims to tell the grand jury about the abuse he experienced as a teenager.
The attorney general's investigation has zeroed in on six of the state's eight Catholic dioceses: Allentown, Scranton, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Greensburg, and Erie.
Philadelphia's archdiocese was not included in the inquiry because it was investigated twice in the last 15 years. The first investigation was led by former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, who released a scathing grand jury report in 2005 detailing decades of child sexual abuse by scores of Philadelphia area priests. Abraham's approach — she released a comprehensive investigative report even as she acknowledged the crimes were too old to be charged — has since been used by prosecutors nationwide. A second grand jury probe in Philadelphia led to the 2011 arrests of four priests.
The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was also left out of the current probe, because it had already been investigated by Shapiro's predecessor, former Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
During the course of the investigation, Shapiro's office has charged two Western Pennsylvania priests with abusing children.
The Democratic attorney general, who took office last year, has said little about the inquiry but revealed in a statement last month that he expects to "speak publicly" about it by the end of this month.
"The only thing that could stop these findings from becoming public at that time is if one of the bishops or dioceses would seek to delay or prevent this public accounting," Shapiro said in a May 21 statement.
One by one, bishops from each diocese under scrutiny have stated publicly that they will not stand in the way of the report's release.
"I realize that the grand jury report will contain information that will be difficult for all of us to hear, but in order for us to focus on the future, we have to have a solid knowledge of the past," Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie said in a statement last month. "The grand jury investigation and its report will provide a voice for the victims. We must listen to that voice and learn from it."
Still, the Pennsylvania judge who oversaw the grand jury's inquiry unsealed an opinion this month that revealed a behind-the-scenes legal fight by unnamed individuals or organizations to redact or change its report.
The move by Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III to unseal his opinion was unusual, as grand jury proceedings are typically shrouded in secrecy.
Krumenacher did not name those involved in the legal push, which involves a request to hold "evidentiary hearings" prior to the report's release so that people named but not charged in it have a chance to defend their reputations. The judge denied their request, saying it would upend the role of the grand jury, which he said was to investigate rather than adjudicate.
The unnamed individuals had until Friday to appeal Krumenacker's decision to the state's highest court. It is not known if they did, as they are allowed to do so under court seal.
Their lawyers either declined comment or did not return calls. Those who accepted phone calls refused to reveal the identities of their clients.
The pitched legal battle does not surprise Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks and archives abuse scandals in Catholic dioceses across the country.
"This is an amazing moment," he said. "With this report, and the previous ones, we will have an assessment of all the dioceses across the state. That has never happened before."
McKiernan and others predicted the report will reignite impassioned debate in the Capitol over extending Pennsylvania's civil statute of limitations. During the legislature's last session, the GOP-controlled House and Senate clashed over whether to make the change retroactive, so that victims who aged out of the statute before they could come to terms with what had happened to them as children would also have the ability to sue.
The retroactivity clause, as it came to be known, would have opened the door to a wave of lawsuits for child sex abuse that occurred as far back as the 1970s. But that is where agreement ended.
Opponents, notably the Catholic Church, argued that it would unfairly cripple, if not bankrupt, parishes and members who bear no blame for the past misconduct of clergy. They found allies in top Republican senators, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who believed applying the law retroactively would be unconstitutional.
But the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that includes retroactivity, setting the stage for an uncomfortable political stalemate that, in the end, killed any chance of a change in the law for both future and past victims.
This time around, supporters of retroactivity say, it will be difficult for legislators to ignore the impact of the scandal. The sheer scope of the report will bring details into nearly every legislative district.
"The expansiveness of it — that in and of itself will be so damaging," said Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democratic lawmaker from Berks County who has championed the push for retroactivity in the Capitol. In a current bill, he proposes a two-year exception to the statute of limitations that would allow victims to file civil suits.
Rozzi, who was abused as a child by a priest, is among the hundreds who testified before the grand jury. In an interview last week, he said he has spoken to other victims, as well as "nuns, priests," and others who contacted Shapiro's office. Some, he said, described being abused in a "cult-type atmosphere" in church basements and elsewhere.
"Some of the stories are truly horrific," Rozzi said. "As legislators, how long can we keep ignoring them? And denying them justice?"
Faluszczak, the former Erie Diocese priest, said appearing before the grand jury to tell the story of being molested as a teen by his parish priest, who is now deceased, was painful but affirming. Though he has struggled with alcohol dependency and panic attacks — and has experienced flashbacks for the first time since testifying — he was heartened the grand jurors listened.
"To talk in front of strangers like that, knowing what the stakes are … ," Faluszczak said, his voice trailing off. "It was therapeutic."
Rozzi put it this way: "A lot of the victims are hanging on threads. Legislators don't understand that."
The grand jury learned that firsthand when it heard from the victim who later tried to kill herself after testifying, the source told the Inquirer and Daily News.