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Synagogue massacre, clergy abuse top Pennsylvania stories

By MICHAEL RUBINKAMDecember 25, 2018

An anti-Semite with a cache of weapons visits terror upon a Pittsburgh synagogue. Grand jurors savage the Catholic Church, rekindling a global crisis over clergy abuse. In the first big celebrity trial of the #MeToo era, Bill Cosby is convicted of sexual assault and, a few months later, enters prison.

These were the headlines in a hugely consequential 2018, a year that saw Pennsylvania play host to some of the nation’s biggest stories.

On Oct. 27, in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, a truck driver walked into Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, killing 11 and wounding six, including four police officers. “I just want to kill Jews,” Robert Bowers told police, according to court documents.

It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Prosecutors have signaled they intend to pursue the death penalty against Bowers, 46.

A look at some of the year’s other top stories:

CRISIS IN THE CHURCH

A blockbuster grand jury report uncovered decades of abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania — and a systematic cover-up by bishops and other senior church leaders. In all, some 300 priests molested more than 1,000 children in six dioceses, according to the report, the most thorough and expansive accounting of clergy abuse ever undertaken by a state.

Church officials apologized, again, for their failure to protect children, and pledged to compensate victims. In a highly unusual move, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia sent subpoenas to dioceses throughout Pennsylvania, the first step in a possible federal prosecution. Officials in many other states launched their own probes into clergy abuse and the church’s handling of it.

But the grand jury’s recommendations failed to produce any legislative results in Harrisburg, where Senate Republicans blocked efforts to allow victims in older child sexual abuse cases to sue.

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COSBY REDUX

The elderly entertainer once again found himself in a suburban Philadelphia courtroom to face charges that he drugged and molested a woman at his gated estate in 2004. Cosby’s retrial took place less than a year after a jury deadlocked in the case.

This time, prosecutors got a conviction.

Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years behind bars in what was seen by many of his accusers as a reckoning richly deserved and long overdue.

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MAPPING THE ELECTION

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the state’s crazy-quilt congressional map — considered one of the most gerrymandered in the nation — ruling it unfairly benefited Republicans. The court’s redrawn map was a boon to Democrats, helping produce the most competitive congressional election in years. Democrats picked up three seats in the U.S. House, while voters elected a state-record four women to the chamber.

In other races, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf handily won re-election over Republican Scott Wagner, while Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey dispatched GOP nominee Lou Barletta to win a third term. Casey promptly floated the idea of a presidential run.

Wolf, meanwhile, ordered every Pennsylvania county to replace their voting machines by 2020, an effort to beef up election security.

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KEYSTONE KORRUPTION

Another year, another batch of shady Pennsylvania politicians.

A jury convicted Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski of selling his office for political gain. Prosecutors said Pawlowski — who began a fourth term while awaiting trial — rigged municipal contracts in exchange for campaign cash for his failed runs for Senate and governor. A federal judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

Former Attorney General Kathleen Kane began serving a 10- to 23-month term for leaking grand jury material and lying about it. Kane was convicted of perjury, obstruction and other counts in 2016 but had remained free during appeals.

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RACIAL STRIFE

A white Pittsburgh-area police officer was charged with homicide for gunning down an unarmed black teenager, Antwon Rose Jr., who was shot in the back as he fled a traffic stop. The shooting fueled daily protests around Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Starbucks apologized and ordered anti-bias training for workers at more than 8,000 stores after the inexplicable arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks. The episode was a major embarrassment for the coffee-shop chain.

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A GOOD BET?

Legalized sports betting made its debut in Pennsylvania. The state’s gambling board also auctioned licenses for five “mini-casinos,” part of the biggest expansion of gambling in the state since casinos were legalized more than a decade ago.

Elsewhere in state government, a new law required people convicted of domestic violence or subject to protective orders to turn in their guns. And the Legislature, spurred by the February high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, approved $60 million in school safety grants.

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A SUPER BOWL FOR PHILLY

The Philadelphia Eagles did what many outside Eagles Nation thought impossible — they won their first Super Bowl without injured star quarterback Carson Wentz. The Birds downed the New England Patriots in a thriller that featured an instantly immortal trick play dubbed “Philly Special” or “Philly Philly.” Hundreds of thousands of deliriously happy fans turned out for the long-awaited parade.

Philly celebrated another title as the Villanova Wildcats routed Michigan to win their second NCAA basketball championship in three years.

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MISCELLANY

A Southwest Airlines passenger was partially sucked out of a broken jet window and was fatally injured. Pilots landed the crippled plane in Philadelphia. Prosecutors say a homeless veteran from Philadelphia plotted with a New Jersey couple to concoct a feel-good tale that scammed $400,000 from GoFundMe donors.

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