Court sides with some priests in abuse report, shields names
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Eleven Roman Catholic clergy won a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision Monday to keep their names and other information out of a grand jury report issued earlier this year into decades of sexual abuse of children by hundreds of priests.
The 6-1 court majority said keeping the names and other information secret was, at this point, the only way to protect the priests’ right to reputation under the state constitution.
“We acknowledge that this outcome may be unsatisfying to the public and to victims of the abuse detailed in the report,” wrote Justice Debra Todd for the majority. She said procedures of the state’s Investigating Grand Jury Act created a “substantial risk” that their reputations could be “irreparably and illegitimately impugned.”
“This prospect we may not ignore,” Todd wrote.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office ran the grand jury investigation, said that while his office can’t release the names, the state’s Catholic bishops can and should.
“Today’s order allows predator priests to remain in the shadows and permits the church to continue concealing their identities,” Shapiro said.
The priests went to court to challenge being named in the document before it was made public in August.
They argued they had not been provided an adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations against them to the grand jury, describing the report in a court brief as containing “false, misleading, incorrect and unsupported assertions.”
“We’re just gratified that the court undertook a substantial effort to vindicate a core Pennsylvania constitutional right, and procedural safeguards to ensure that that right is honored in the future,” attorney Chris Hall, who represents some of the petitioners, said Monday.
Efrem Grail, another lawyer with clients who challenged disclosure, said he was gratified by the ruling.
“Its opinion clearly demonstrates the constitutional inadequacy of the commonwealth’s Investigating Grand Jury Act for the injustice of its procedures,” Grail said.
The grand jury found hundreds of priests had abused children over the prior 70 years, describing abuse that included violent sexual attacks. The report, which was issued with extensive redactions while the priests’ legal challenge was pending, also said church officials covered up the abuse.
The grand jury focused on 301 clergy, and more than 270 names were made public in August. It was not immediately clear what will happen regarding clergy whose names have not been disclosed but are also not among the 11 in the Supreme Court decision.
“As a general matter,” lawyers for the priests wrote in a Sept. 4 brief, “a private citizen singled out for targeted condemnation in a grand jury report must have what other jurisdictions provide: an opportunity to present exculpatory evidence to the grand jury, and a hearing before a neutral supervising judge.”
They have said essential witnesses are no longer available, the report has created a lifetime stigma of sex offender status without criminal convictions, and the attorney general’s office had engaged in an “incessant media campaign.”
The attorney general’s office had argued the Supreme Court could have brought the now-dismissed grand jury back to hear testimony and examine additional evidence. The state prosecutors’ office has said the court could change the grand jury process through its rulemaking power, bypassing the Legislature.
The attorney general’s office said permitting the names to remain redacted could set a precedent that would impede future efforts to expose institutional abuse or corruption.
Todd wrote that altering the grand jury’s procedures “is a task committed to the sound discretion of the Legislature.” In a lone concurrence, Justice Kevin Dougherty suggested giving those named in grand jury reports the right to testify and other changes designed to protect their constitutional rights.
The dissent, by Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, endorsed granting the petitioners a limited hearing before the judge who supervised the grand jury, and letting that judge “make reasonable judgments concerning whether, and to what extent, (the) petitioners would be permitted to review and test the evidence upon which the grand jurors relied.”