HARRISBURG — As in the Batman reruns he grew up watching as a kid, the battle between good and evil has something that, even as an adult, Daniel Dye can't seem to shake from his conscience.
Maybe it's because in those stories, someone shows up, flaws and all, when duty calls. Or maybe it's because those people are unafraid and unabashed at feeling righteousness.
Dye, 38, muses openly about such things. On social media, where his posts often cite famous men in history or discuss the fight for justice. In a coffeehouse on an overcast weekday afternoon. And in a grand jury room, where as a senior prosecutor for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office, he's spent the last five years building the cases that led to the damning report on Catholic clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania — once even quoting Scripture to a defrocked priest he was questioning.
It is a crusading style that elicits fierce admiration from friends and colleagues and skepticism from adversaries who privately question whether he's for real, and what his end game is. And as the lead prosecutor behind the clergy sexual abuse case that has spurred a wave of similar law enforcement investigations across the country, he has no shortage of either.
As cases go, it is big. Though at the center of a furious legal fight centering on due process that has reached Pennsylvania's highest court, it's repeatedly been described as the nation's most sweeping inquiry into sexual abuse of children and its systemic cover-up in the Catholic church. Not since the Boston Globe exposed widespread abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002 has the church been so shaken by scandal.
The investigation in Pennsylvania exposed 70 years of abuse in nearly every Catholic diocese: more than 1,000 victims, 301 predator priests, and dozens in the church hierarchy who knew about the abuse but buried it to shield the institution.
Through it all, Dye has been the one constant. He's appeared at every grand jury session to lead the questioning and traveled the state to meet victims in person and urge them to share their painful stories.
"It's like radiation exposure — and he's had a million rads," former state prosecutor Clarke Madden, a friend and former colleague of Dye's, said of the emotional drain that child sexual abuse cases cause.
He added: "It's like having the abyss look back into you."
At the start, Dye did not go looking for the case. It landed on his desk in 2013, just two years after he joined the Attorney General's Office, when a local district attorney referred the matter of an abusive friar. He shelled out $90 of his own money to buy a book on the canon law of the Catholic Church, which lays out rules and principles that govern its operations — including the provision that every Catholic diocese must maintain a secret archive to store files detailing inquiries into criminal or "moral" accusations.
That archive became the foundation of the case.
Dye said that as the months, and then the years, passed, it became clear to him and the small team of investigators assigned to the case that it was far more than an isolated episode. The investigation became as much about exposing crimes – though most were so old they could no longer be prosecuted — as it was about righting a wrong.
"The more people I met and the more living rooms I sat in all across the commonwealth, this concept started coming to mind of like an oppressed people – an entire population who were silenced and oppressed and could not be heard," said Dye. "It was a profound thing to experience."
But it was not a foreign experience.
If life is a series of meaningful markers, for him, the year he entered fifth grade is etched as the one that ushered in the end of his childhood.
His parents, who by then had moved to a sprawling farm in a rural town in eastern Ohio, decided to homeschool him. But instead of spending his days learning at the kitchen table, he said, he was forced to work day in and day out on their farm.
The hours were long and the work could be backbreaking. He had little contact with other kids his age. He felt isolated and struggled with hopelessness.
He found hope in watching Batman reruns – because in those mighty struggles between good and evil, the good guy almost always prevailed.
He calls it a "dark period" in his life.
At 19, he landed in the hospital after spending a night working in freezing rain. It was there that he decided to leave home. His parents were not supportive, he said. Hurtful words were exchanged.
With no money, no schooling, and no real-life experience, he found a friend in his grandmother, who cosigned for his first apartment and helped pay his first few months of rent.
He earned his general education diploma while working as a land surveyor, and took the ACTs and went to Kent State.
"He grew up the hard way," said Louella Irwin, Dye's grandmother, who calls memories from that time "painful."
Dye is estranged from his parents. Several family members who agreed to be interviewed confirmed details about his childhood.
In an interview Monday, Dye's mother, Kebria Dye, said that she believes she and her husband provided adequate "educational and spiritual experiences" that have helped him "accomplish positive outcomes for society." She also said three of Dye's siblings still live on the farm, helping to run it, and they believe growing up there provided a "constructive way of life."
She added: "We are very proud of our son."
After college, Dye migrated back to Pennsylvania (where he had lived for a short period as a child) for law school at Penn State Dickinson Law, working for several years as an assistant district attorney in Lancaster County, handling domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse cases.
"It is a very difficult area of the law," said former state Attorney General Bruce Beemer, who first assigned Dye to the church case. "It takes a unique skill set to deal with victims. You have to have a significant amount of passion and empathy and truly understand how difficult it is for people to talk about the most difficult memories in their lives."
Dye, who is married and has two young sons, said he developed a passion for such cases. In dealing with children, those countless Batman reruns he had watched informed his work.
"They were corny shows, you realize that when you are an adult," he said. "But when you're dealing with kids … everybody understands that Batman doesn't have superpowers in that he can fly or hang off walls. … What he can do is the right thing."
They are lofty words not often heard from the mouths of prosecutors. As a group, they tend to be reticent. Though they may feel that they are a force for justice, they don't openly discuss it.
Dye sheds the mask.
During the grand jury investigation, a defrocked priest who had confessed to abusing children contended that he was unaware of the serious impact of his actions. Dye's response, quoted in the report: "You didn't know that Scripture itself says it is better to put a millstone around your neck and be cast into the sea than harm a child?"
On social media, Dye's posts advocate for breaking down the barriers of silence surrounding sexual abuse and holding abusers and their enablers responsible for their actions. He talks about the importance of public service and fighting for change. He has a website, created last year in advance of a fund-raiser to aid a nonprofit helping child victims; critics say it has the feel of a campaign vehicle. (His name has been bandied about in political circles in Lancaster County, where he lives, as someday running for district attorney.)
"He wears his heart on his sleeve," said one lawyer who has worked alongside Dye over the years and asked not to be identified because the case is still being challenged in court. "It is unique, it is different … but it opens you to criticism. Prosecutors speak in a courtroom."
A small army of lawyers who represent a small group of former and current clergy members have also attacked his work on the report. They have argued in court papers that the grand jury method used denied their clients due process. They also contend that the report, which was temporarily redacted to black out their clients' names, contains inaccuracies or unjustly tarnishes their clients' reputations.
Said one such lawyer, who requested anonymity because it is a pending case: "I have no problem with Dan. He's a pro. He's a zealous advocate. I think he's ethical. But I and other lawyers have issues with the work product and the accuracy of the work product."
Dye declined to address the criticism because the case remains unresolved. But Shapiro, who has championed the investigation since taking office last year, told the editorial board of the Inquirer and Daily News on Friday that the report is based on the church's own internal documents, papers hidden in secret archives that documented not only allegations of abuse, but also how church leaders often shuffled accused priests around to shield their wrongdoing.
"They'd write it all down," Shapiro said.
Jim VanSickle, a clergy abuse survivor who testified before the grand jury, said that even after years of hearing stories of depravity and horror, Dye never coddled him or treated him with kid gloves.
"Dan Dye at that time to me was this ridiculously professional, well-groomed machine," said VanSickle. "I was like `Oh my God, this guy is serious.' "
Only in the hours before the report's release last month, said VanSickle, did he see emotion.
"And I wanted to reach out and give him a hug," said VanSickle. "Because I know it was hard. I know it was overwhelming."
For Dye, the case is not over. Since the report's release, the Attorney General's Office has received more than 1,000 calls from people reporting abuse.
"Right now," he said, "that is the only thing I am focused on."