Should dioceses use grand jury probes?
By Peter Smith
April 3, 2016
|Attorney General Kathleen Kane, shown last month at a news conference in Altoona that was held to announce the 147-page report on sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, said none of the alleged criminal acts in the case could be prosecuted because some abusers have died, statutes of limitations have expired and victims are too traumatized to testify. |
In the past 11 years, grand juries in Pennsylvania have investigated two Roman Catholic dioceses and issued reports with the same narrative line:
Dozens of priests molested hundreds of children across the latter decades of the 20th century as their bishops and other higher-ups ignored or downplayed credible evidence of their offenses and even kept predators in ministry assignments with access to children.
That’s what grand juries reported about the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2005 and 2011 and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown last month.
Because those investigations largely delved far into the past, they yielded thick reports but few prosecutions due to the statute of limitations.
They did, however, yield a rarity: Four of the five Roman Catholic officials ever charged in the United States for covering up the sexual abuse of a subordinate, as opposed to committing the abuse themselves, have been accused as a result of these grand jury probes.
To be sure, the conviction of Philadelphia’s former clergy-director has been overturned in a case that prosecutors are appealing. And three Franciscans charged last month following the Altoona-Johnstown probe for allegedly putting youths at risk of an abusive friar have only begun to have their day in court.
Some activists say investigators would find similarly shocking cases in the other six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania if they only took a look.
“Just about every diocese in that state should be subject to a grand-jury investigation, every one in the United States,” said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest from Virginia with a doctorate in canon law who serves as an expert witness and consultant for victims’ attorneys filing claims against the church. “That’s the only way you find out the absolute truth of what’s going on.”
Added former priest Robert Hoatson of New Jersey, founder of the Road to Recovery advocacy group for clergy abuse victims: “If they raided every diocese they’d find the same thing.”
But prosecutors reached for comment say they don’t plan on referring such cases to grand juries. They say local dioceses have cooperated over the years, and that they can’t put limited law-enforcement time and money into a research project unless they believe there’s a specific crime they can prosecute. Most known abuse by Catholic clergy occurred decades ago, past the statute of limitations.
“I don’t believe in using the resources of the grand jury to go on a fishing expedition in the absence of any complaint,” said Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin.
In 2002, when revelations of sexual abuse and coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston exploded into a global scandal, Mr. Martin said he and district attorneys in other counties in the Diocese of Allentown met with its bishop and other representatives.
Church officials, he said, voluntarily turned over files of priests accused of sexual abuse since the Allentown diocese’s founding in 1961. None of them could be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations or the death of the accused, Mr. Martin said.
“Since that time, counsel to the diocese has religiously sent me reports of anything that smacks of any kind of complaint,” he said, but often with the same result. ”I would say they operate in the context of extreme caution, which is good.”
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office issued a statement saying it has long had a similarly cooperative relationship with the Diocese of Pittsburgh under Bishop (now Cardinal) Donald Wuerl, who governed the diocese from 1988 to 2006, and his successor, current Bishop David Zubik.
Bishop Wuerl “communicated to District Attorney Zappala that he operated under a policy of zero tolerance with respect to abusive and/or criminal behavior by the clergy and it’s a policy that has been carried through by Bishop Zubik as well,” Zappala’s office said.
The diocese “has never failed to expeditiously and fully provide information to this office that they believe represented a credible claim concerning possible abusive behavior by members of the clergy,” the statement said. ”Additionally, we are not aware that this policy has ever been contradicted by any member of the community presenting themselves as a victim of abusive behavior.”
Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said he has a similar understanding with the Diocese of Harrisburg. ”From what I’ve read about other areas, our diocese has been a leader in dealing with the priest abuse issues and being forthcoming with law enforcement,” he said.
Bishop Zubik said while he wouldn’t expect a grand jury investigation, “We don’t have anything to hide. We’ve continued to work hard” and cooperate with law enforcement.
Bishop Edward Malesic of the Diocese of Greensburg said he reviewed all of the diocese’s files on accused priests upon his arrival there last year. He said he’s satisfied that if a grand jury investigates, “they would find what I have found, that there is no one here serving in active ministry that has a credible accusation against them.”
He added: “I know that sometimes the Catholic Church looks like one big monolithic organization, but we do see ourselves as a communion of churches. While what I think happened in Altoona-Johnstown is certainly tragic and the same way in Philadelphia, I don’t know that we can paint all the churches and all the dioceses with that same brush.”
Under Pennsylvania law, a grand jury composed of citizens is an investigative tool available to district attorneys — or the state attorney general’s office if a case is referred to it, as happened when the Cambria County district attorney sent it the Altoona-Johnstown case. Grand juries hear testimony, review evidence and decide whether to recommend charges.
It can, quite legally, be a fishing expedition.
“A grand jury doesn’t have to have any basis of suspicion whatsoever to subpoena documents,” said Wesley Oliver, a professor of law at Duquesne University and director of its criminal justice program. “A grand jury can investigate a company just to make sure it is complying with the law.”
But “with known cases of murderers and rapists and terrorists, unless you’ve got a reason to think this is going to yield something, it seems like it’s a bad use of resources,” he said. And there’s no way of knowing what ”other dioceses are looked into and found to be perfectly fine.”
Grand juries are not the only way to get a diocese to cough up the thousands of internal documents that provided the basis for the reports in Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown.
The damning internal files in the Archdiocese of Boston, which enabled the Boston Globe to conduct the 2001-2002 blockbuster investigation dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” came largely through discovery via victim lawsuits against the church.
A diocese like Pittsburgh’s, however, has never had a wholesale airing of internal documents. A decade ago, a lawsuit alleging coverup in the diocese stalled before the discovery phase because of a state court ruling that the statute of limitations had long passed.
“Fortunately I was able to deal with the diocese here on moral issues,” said attorney Alan Perer, one of the lawyers whose 32 clients alleged abuse by 17 priests and settled for $1.25 million in 2007. “Even though nobody got a tremendous payment, they got some payments and in some cases it was very helpful.”
Most of the Pittsburgh priests named in that suit had been removed from ministry or died years before bishops had made a national zero-tolerance policy in 2002.
Last week brought a reminder of what a grand jury might find if it looked into the deeper past of the local church. The diocese reached a financial settlement with a man who said he had been sexually abused by a Camden, N.J., priest, John Connor, who worked North Hills assignments in the mid-1980s.
The 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report found internal Pittsburgh documents showing that Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, when he was bishop here before going to Philadelphia, brought Connor here and then to Philadelphia as a favor to the Camden bishop after Connor admitted in a New Jersey court to abusing a boy.
The 2011 Philadelphia grand jury also could serve as a cautionary tale.
It led to abuse charges against two priests and a schoolteacher in a case — based on a controversial star witness whose credibility has been challenged in recent Newsweek articles.
It also led to the conviction of former clergy-office director, Monsignor William Lynn on evidence he knowingly kept priests in ministry despite a history of abuse. But at Monsignor Lynn’s trial, prosecutors also piled on evidence of coverup he had nothing to do with, and a Superior Court overturned Lynn’s conviction in December. He remains behind bars while prosecutors appeal.