Greensburg, Harrisburg dioceses sought to shut down grand jury abuse probe

By Peter Smith, Angela Couloumbis, And Liz Navratil
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Philadelphia Inquirer
June 30, 2018

The Roman Catholic dioceses of Greensburg and Harrisburg last year sought to shut down the statewide grand jury investigating sexual abuse by priests in six dioceses, including their own, contending that the creation of the grand jury lacked a legal justification.

But the supervising judge of the 40th statewide grand jury dismissed the argument, according to newly unsealed records.

It’s the first indication that any of the six dioceses under scrutiny actually took steps to quash the investigation, which is looking into seven decades’ worth of allegations of sexual abuse and cover-up in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton.

Supervising Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III’s order, originally under seal like virtually all grand jury deliberations to date, was recently unsealed in Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court.

The order said: “The Motion to Discharge the Fortieth Statewide Investigating Grand Jury is DENIED. ... The motion to Quash Notice of Submission [the attorney general’s April 2016 description of the investigation into child endangerment and obstruction of justice] is DENIED.”

The Office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro entered the ruling as an exhibit in its rebuttal to another challenge to the grand jury’s legitimacy. That one was filed by the Rev. John Sweeney, a priest in the Diocese of Greensburg who was indicted by the grand jury on a sexual abuse charge.

The dioceses are led by Greensburg Bishop Edward Malesic, appointed by Pope Francis in 2015 and formerly judicial vicar in Harrisburg, and Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer, appointed to his current post by Pope Francis in 2014 and to bishop of Lexington, Ky., by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Mike Barley, a spokesman for the Harrisburg Diocese, said the diocese always cooperated with the probe but believed it belonged with local authorities.

“Our attorneys raised this issue of jurisdiction only to ensure that if charges were brought by law enforcement against individuals they could be prosecuted with the full weight and authority of the law,” Mr. Barley said in a statement. “To be clear, in the motion we specifically requested that the investigations be sent to the local district attorneys. The Diocese has always supported the release of a Grand Jury Report.”

Jerome Zufelt, a spokesman for the Greensburg diocese, also said that diocese “has always supported the release of the grand jury report and believes that criminal investigations should continue with prosecutors who have jurisdiction, which would be the relevant District Attorneys.”

In replying to the challenge from the two dioceses, Judge Krumenacker’s ruling reveals that the 40th grand jury was directly picking up unfinished business from a predecessor grand jury whose term expired in January 2016.

That earlier grand jury released a scathing report in March 2016 on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that described decades of sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by church and public officials.

In his opinion, Judge Krumenacker wrote there were “16 matters being investigated” but left unfinished by the Altoona-Johnstown panel — known as the 37th statewide investigating grand jury. He said the attorney general’s office sought and received approval to empanel a new grand jury to pick up those cases as well as tips into three more alleged criminal cases.

State law allows the attorney general to seek Supreme Court permission to conduct a multi-county grand jury to investigate “organized crime, public corruption or both,” he wrote. Judge Krumenacker, who is president judge of Cambria County, supervised both the 37th and 40th grand juries.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court approved the establishment of the 40th grand jury in January 2016, according to Judge Krumenacker. That indicates, in essence, that even before the release of the Altoona-Johnstown report in March 2016, the sequel was already in the works.

The two dioceses’ effort to have the grand jury disbanded revolve around the legal steps taken in its first months.

When the office of then-Attorney General Kathleen Kane sought and received Supreme Court approval for the new grand jury in January 2016, it cited the 16 unfinished matters as well as three cases that may involve public corruption or organized crime.

But in April 2016, when the attorney general’s office submitted its first notice to the incoming grand jury of what it would be investigating, it cited cases of child sexual abuse, endangering the welfare of children and obstruction of justice in the church.

Since it didn’t cite corruption or organized crime, the dioceses wanted the notice quashed and the grand jury dismissed.

But Judge Krumenacker ruled that the office properly cited those crimes when the grand jury was empaneled in January. Once established, though, a grand jury has “broad authority” to investigate crimes of all sorts.

“Given the nature of the investigatory process it is possible that a matter not involving organized criminal activity or public corruption was the first ready for submission to the (grand jury) even though there were ongoing … investigations involving such activity,” Judge Krumenacker wrote.

While the law restricts which crimes an attorney general’s office can prosecute, it can always refer its findings to local district attorneys for prosecution, the judge added: “To require the (office of attorney general) to ignore such evidence of potential criminal activity runs counter to logic and would potentially permit criminal activity to go uninvestigated and unpunished.”

The multi-year investigation of the Catholic Church began when Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan referred cases to the attorney general in 2012 and 2013.

That was about the time of the public eruption of scandal involving a Franciscan friar, Stephen Baker, who committed suicide after it was revealed he sexually molested scores of boys. He had taught in Cambria County and most recently lived at his order’s headquarters in Blair County.

That referral led to the 37th grand jury, which expanded its probe into the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. During that probe, the attorney general’s office “became aware of similar organized multicounty criminal conduct within other geographic regions of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.”

That led to the creation of the current grand jury.

Father Sweeney faces a pending charge after he was indicted last year by the grand jury, which alleged he forced a fourth-grade boy to perform oral sex in the early 1990s. He is challenging the indictment on various grounds, among them the attorney general’s jurisdiction in what is normally handled by a county district attorney.

It was that claim that prompted Mr. Shapiro’s office to file Judge Krumenacker’s 2017 ruling to support its legitimate role as prosecutor.

The order remained sealed for months. Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio, presiding in Father Sweeney’s case, ordered it unsealed in May, around the same date that Judge Krumenacker held a closed-door hearing in Cambria County, after which Mr. Shapiro announced that all dioceses had agreed not to oppose release of the report.

Late this week, Judge Bilik-DeFazio approved a request by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to examine the file once information identifying the alleged victim was redacted.

In the filing, the attorney general’s office said Judge Krumenacker’s order was being appealed, but it could not be confirmed if that appeal was still pending Friday.

The two dioceses separately have a pending appeal of grand jury rules requiring attorneys for witnesses to keep an oath of secrecy outside of grand jury proceedings.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.