Ex-priest accused in Pa. grand jury report denies allegations, assails process

By Paula Reed Ward
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
December 10, 2018

By the time former priest Stephen Jeselnick learned in May that he had been named as an abuser in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s investigation into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the two pages of the grand jury report accusing him were already completed.

He wasn't invited to testify, and though he challenged the accusations before the supervising judge of the grand jury when he learned of them, Mr. Jeselnick was told he and others named had no recourse except to submit a written response that would be appended to the final report.

The summary provided scant detail, alleging the abuse happened in the late 1970s at St. Brigid church in Meadville and that the victims’ mother worked there.

He did not know who was accusing him or why they had never come forward before 2017.

So Mr. Jeselnick, who served as a colonel and chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, retiring from there in 2011 and from the Erie diocese in 2010, said he had to respond blindly to the allegations.

His attorney, Chris Capozzi, challenged the grand jury allegations against his client and wrote an eight-page response that was included in a document separate from the 884-page report released in August.

But Mr. Jeselnick, who had already spent more than $10,000 on attorney fees to that point, chose not to pursue an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Those who did — 11 priests — had their names initially redacted from the report while the appellate court considered their challenge.

On Monday, the court decided in a 6-1 opinion that those priests’ names shall forever remain protected because the clergy members were not provided adequate due process by the grand jury.

But for Mr. Jeselnick and others who didn’t continue their appeals and whose names were exposed, the opinion means nothing.

“Even if they said tomorrow, the entire Pennsylvania grand jury process was unconstitutional, it violated the rights of every one of those individuals, the damage is done to me,” Mr. Jeselnick said. “My reputation is ruined.”

Allegations emerge

On March 8, Mr. Jeselnick was informed by the Erie diocese that his name would be included on a website identifying priests facing “credible allegations” of child abuse.

He assumed it was a mistake.

He knew his church file included records of his having a relationship with an adult man in the early 1980s — the diocese had agreed to pay that man for counseling when he reported it in the early 1990s, and later Mr. Jeselnick paid him $25,000 and signed a non-disclosure agreement with him to protect his military career — but Mr. Jeselnick had never been accused of anything to do with children.

His attorney wrote the diocese, saying it must have been a mistake.

Not a mistake, the diocesan attorney replied. 

Then, on May 4, Mr. Jeselnick, 67, of Colorado Springs, Colo. learned from the attorney general’s office that he had been named in the grand jury report. The letter included a two-page summary listing all of Mr. Jeselnick’s assignments and an outline of the allegations.

The summary said diocesan records showed no allegations that Mr. Jeselnick abused children. But the grand jury heard testimony from “three members of a family who each testified to their abuse at the hands of Jeselnick. Their accounts of Jeselnick’s abuse included genital fondling, oral and anal sex. This occurred in the late 1970s when Jeselnick was stationed at St. Brigid in Meadville,” it said. “All three men and several of their sisters testified that Jeselnick and a previously unidentified deacon would come to their house and get intoxicated with their parents.”

Once the adults were drunk, the summary continued, Mr. Jeselnick would prey upon the boys.

“The three men testified that their mother worked for the parish and would sometimes take the boys to work with her.”

The abuse, the summary said, occurred at their home and at the church, and “still haunts them to this day.” The alleged victims were not named.

Mr. Jeselnick denies the allegations and said he had no idea who could have been accusing him.

“First, it was 40 years ago. Second, there were no details. And third, as a priest, I visited hundreds, if not thousands, of families,” he said. “I had zero idea of who this could possibly be.”

’Zero corroboration’

Mr. Jeselnick hired Mr. Capozzi and petitioned the supervising judge of the grand jury, Norman Krumenacher, to force the AG’s office to turn over any evidence it had against him.

Although the judge signed an order requiring the attorney general to provide Mr. Jeselnick with all the parts of the report that mentioned him, he never received anything more than the summary. He was never interviewed by any investigator, or even by anyone from the diocese of Erie. All he could do was file the response.

Mr. Capozzi wrote that Mr. Jeselnick was innocent and chided the grand jury report as lacking.

“The primary problem with Report No. 1,” Mr. Capozzi wrote, “is not just false allegations and erroneous conclusions; The problem is it reveals a complete lack of investigative rigor or inquisitiveness and does not reflect that even a modicum of fairness was afforded to Mr. Jeselnick.”

The response noted that the summary against Mr. Jeselnick included no details as to when, where or what occurred, or when and to whom the abuse was first reported. It also did not assert how Mr. Jeselnick was identified as the alleged perpetrator, or when that occurred.

“In other words, there is zero corroboration of these assertions,” the attorney wrote.

Mr. Capozzi also noted that the summary did not contain any reference to testimony or interviews of anyone else who may have attended or worked at St. Brigid at the time.

He also called out what he viewed as a cheap shot when the report said that “it is unclear when he officially retired.” His client has a letter from the bishop of Erie congratulating him on his retirement on July 12, 2010.

“This omission alone underscores the utter paucity of meaningful investigation and analysis as it relates to Mr. Jeselnick and suggests that none of [the] conclusions concerning his conduct should be credited.”

Mr. Jeselnick decided not to take on the expense of further appeal and did not join the group that ultimately succeeded in getting their names redacted from the grand jury report.

But what Mr. Jeselnick and his attorney did not know was that 48 pages after his summary was another entry concerning him about a man who failed out of seminary.

That man, John Tome, was accused of abusing the same family — with Mr. Jeselnick.

The three-page Tome report was significantly more detailed, providing time frames and graphic descriptions of the alleged victims’ testimony.

The person identified as Victim No. 1 said that she was 12 when the abuse began in the “mid-1970s.”

“She reported that Tome, whom she knew as ‘Jack Tome’ and Father Stephen Jeselnick would come to her home and drink with her parents until late at night.”

Mr. Jeselnick is not referenced again in the Tome report until the last paragraph, which summarizes testimony from the person identified as Victim No. 5, who said he was between the ages of 10 to 13 when he was abused by Mr. Tome and Mr. Jeselnick.

No years for the abuse are provided.

Victim No. 5 accused both men of forced oral sex and rape and told investigators that he was abused 10 to 15 times, with Mr. Tome abusing him at the boy’s home and Mr. Jeselnick abusing him at St. Brigid’s rectory.

“This victim also testified that he observed both men naked and that he witnessed them sexually assaulting his sister, Victim No. 3, as well as his oldest sister, who is now deceased,” the Tome summary said. “It was the opinion of Victim No. 1 and her brother, who was not abused because he was in the military during this time frame, that the oldest and now deceased sister was also victimized by Tome and/or Jeselnick when she was a young girl. It is their belief that she was abused more than any of the other family members.”

Mr. Jeselnick was floored by the allegations.

He said he never met — or even heard of — Mr. Tome, who, according to the summary, represented himself as a deacon at St. Brigid.

Mr. Tome could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Jeselnick, too, was infuriated that even though the judge had ordered the attorney general’s office to turn over the reports relative to him, that they had failed to give him the Tome summary.

’Father Steve’

He and his family started doing research and ultimately tracked down the name of the family that made the accusations against him.

Mr. Jeselnick insists that not only did he never abuse them, he never visited their home.

He isn’t saying that he believes the people who testified were lying about being abused – just that he is not the one who did it.

He notes what he considers to be discrepancies in the report: The accusers listed abuse dates before he was assigned to St. Brigid in June 1978.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette spoke to the brother who was away in the military at the time of the alleged abuse at St. Brigid. His name is not being used to protect his siblings.

He said that four days before his sister died, in 2017, she called him and said she had been abused as a child by a person named, “Father Steve.”

She did not use the man’s last name, but her brother set out to investigate. That led him to a 2008 article in the Meadville Tribune about Mr. Jeselnick's relationship with the adult man in the 1980s.

He began asking his other siblings if they had been abused. They told him they had.

The man went to the Crawford County District Attorney’s office and ultimately was referred to the attorney general’s office.

He said that he testified before the grand jury for about 30 minutes, as did several of his siblings.

The man said that his sister never used Mr. Jeselnick’s last name with him, and his siblings never provided names to him either.

Although he appreciates the constitutional concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” the brother says, “If my sister said on her death bed, ‘He was one of the ones,’ then that’s good enough for me.”

About a month ago, Mr. Jeselnick sent each of the siblings that he could track down a copy of his grand jury response, along with a note saying he did not abuse them.

He has not heard back from them, and the brother who spoke to the Post-Gazette thought it took a lot of nerve to send such a thing.

“This is devastating to families,” he said.

Mr. Jeselnick said that had he been aware of the allegations against him in the Tome summary, he would have appealed, sought to have his name redacted and pushed for an investigation.

“How is it possible that anyone can make an accusation to a grand jury investigation, and that, simply on the face of it, is accepted as fact?” Mr. Jeselnick said.

“Steve Jeselnick never had the opportunity to talk with those grand jurors and tell his story. He never had the opportunity to sit with an agent and tell his story,” Mr. Capozzi said. “Maybe if he had, they would have believed him and not [his accusers].

A right to reputation

Under Pennsylvania law, a statewide investigating grand jury can be empaneled to "inquire into organized crime or public corruption or both."

That panel, to be made up of 23 citizens, can sit for up to 24 months and may issue a presentment, which recommends criminal charges, or it may issue a report.

But the report, the law says, must be constrained to organized crime or public corruption or “proposing recommendations for legislative, executive or administrative action in the public interest based upon stated findings."

In the case of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, the panel suggested several changes to the law, including: elimination by the state Legislature of the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual predators; creation of a "civil window" for victims to be able to file lawsuits against the dioceses to recover damages; and improvement of mandatory reporting laws.

The vast majority of the evidence the grand jury reviewed came from the Catholic Church’s own files — their “secret archives.” But some also came through the testimony of alleged victims, agents who interviewed them and relatives.

There were few priests or church officials who testified, which is not unusual.

John Flannery, a former senior deputy attorney general for 21 years, said under Pennsylvania’s grand jury rules, there is no requirement that a target be invited to testify.

And even targets who appear before the grand jury are not made aware of the previous accusations or testimony against them; they don’t know what evidence there is, and their attorneys don’t get to cross-examine anyone.

“There’s no legal requirement to give him notice or disclose anything that went on before the grand jury,” Mr. Flannery said. “The whole purpose of the grand jury is to conduct the investigation in secret.”

Nine times out of 10, Mr. Flannery continued, a grand jury investigation results in criminal charges.

“And if it didn’t result in criminal charges, then nothing ever becomes public about it,” he said. “It as much protects the innocent as it exposes the guilty.”

Part of that, experts say, is to protect the integrity of the investigation itself. But it also is to ensure that, if criminal charges don’t come from the proceeding, that the initial target does not suffer any undue harm.

But in the case of the 40th statewide investigating grand jury, the report naming 301 priests does have a potential for harm, the priests who sought redaction argued.

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, a person has the right to his reputation. In the context of the the grand jury’s report, some priests alleged that they were not provided adequate due process to protect that constitutional right.

“We have guarantees of due process because we know being investigated and prosecuted invokes the state’s power to initiate a process that can result in a person’s freedom being curtailed and have a huge impact on their life,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris.

Typically, the return of a grand jury presentment — and the filing of criminal charges — is the starting point of the criminal justice system for a defendant.

After charges are filed, the person named in the presentment has a vast array of due process rights: the ability to receive discovery and file motions to test evidence; to cross-examine witnesses; to call witnesses and even testify.

“The return of a presentment is only the starting point,” said Peter Vaira, a long-time criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia and former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “After that, you have complete, exhaustive due process. They have to tell you everything.

“A report, on the other hand, still has all that secrecy.”

And it’s the end, not the beginning.

“That’s it. That’s the final report,” he said.

Even though the grand jury offered the priests the option of submitting a response to the allegations, it “is unlikely to counter the weight of what the grand jury concludes,” Mr. Harris said. “It’s also hard to do when you haven’t seen any of the evidence.”

Mr. Vaira and several attorneys who represented the accused priests have said that the 40th investigating grand jury report should not have identified the alleged abusers because the panel knew no charges could be filed against them based on the existing statute of limitations.

Mr. Flannery disagrees.

“Just because they’re blocked by the statute of limitations doesn’t mean they shouldn’t reveal the credible allegations against the individual,” Mr. Flannery said.

In the introduction of the grand jury report, the panel said it regrets that it could not file criminal charges: "This report is our only recourse. We are going to name their names, and describe what they did -- both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve. And we are going to make our recommendations for how the laws should change so that maybe no one will have to conduct another inquiry like this one."

But Mr. Vaira said that it is not their role.

“I do not believe the grand jury is ever to be a social commentator,” he said. “They started out knowing all of these cases were bound by the statute of limitations.

“Is this even what the grand jury was intended to be?”

Joe Grace, spokesman for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, addressed Mr. Jeselnick’s objections in an email Friday.

“While Mr. Jeselnick may be raising questions about the due process provided to him under the grand jury process, there can be no question what the grand jury found during its two-year investigation: Jeselnick sexually abused children while serving as a priest in the Diocese of Erie,” Mr. Grace wrote.

“Substantial information, including sections of the grand jury’s report, were provided to all relevant persons pursuant to the Grand Jury Act prior to the release of the report. Those persons were provided a right of response. Mr. Jeselnick afforded himself of that opportunity and responded. His response was appended to the report. We stand by the grand jurors’ report.

“We are confident the Office of Attorney General will continue to balance preserving the grand jury’s crucial role as a check on power with individuals’ due process rights,” Mr. Grace wrote.

Supreme Court rules

On Monday the state Supreme Court ruled  that the names of the 11 priests who challenged the grand jury's report on appeal shall remain redacted.

Justice Debra Todd wrote that the decision was based on the court’s belief that no remedy suggested by the parties to provide due process would be permitted under the law.

"We acknowledge that this outcome may be unsatisfying to the public and to the victims of the abuse detailed in the report," Justice Todd wrote. "While we understand and empathize with these perspectives, constitutional rights are of the highest order, and even alleged sexual abusers, or those abetting them, are guaranteed by our commonwealth's constitution the rights of due process."

But neither that opinion, nor two concurring opinions written by justices Kevin Dougherty and Max Baer address what happens to the priests who are already named.

“The opinion does not appear to me to provide any relief to individuals who did not pursue an appeal,” Mr. Capozzi said. “I think a better approach would have been if the report had not been released at all until these appeals were heard.”

Mr. Capozzi said the Supreme Court’s opinion “calls into question the very premise of the grand jury reporting process in this case.” Particularly, he said, the practice of criticizing subjects of the grand jury without ever giving them a chance to be heard.

The Supreme Court’s opinion fails to offer any guidance for the future, Mr. Capozzi said, and instead leaves open the door for later litigation for individuals who may be named and criticized in a grand jury report.

There is currently a task force examining the scope and power of the statewide investigating grand jury process, but it is unclear when that work will be done.

“It’s unimaginable the Pennsylvania grand jury process could be this unfair and leave an individual like myself so utterly defenseless,” Mr. Jeselnick said. “In the meantime, of course, my reputation is destroyed.”



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