Courts
and
Legal Issues
 
BACK TO:

 Legal Headlines

 

 


Philadelphia Grand Jury: No Clergy Abuse Charges

By Nancy Phillips, Mark Fazlollah and Craig R. McCoy - Inquirer Staff Writers
Wed, Aug. 03, 2005

The grand jury investigating sex abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese has prepared a report that documents decades of assaults on children by more than 50 priests - but calls for no new criminal charges.

The report, more than 500 pages long, harshly criticizes church leaders for shielding abusers.

Drafted by prosecutors in District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham's office, the report is now in the hands of the Common Pleas Court judge overseeing the secret probe.

The report is expected to be made public next month, completing the nation's longest-running investigation into clergy sex abuse.

Prosecutors and grand jurors have spent more than three years gathering evidence and hearing often-wrenching testimony from hundreds of witnesses. They also heard from priests and church leaders, including Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, who headed the archdiocese from 1988 to 2003.

To date, the probe has resulted in a single arrest: that of a priest who pleaded guilty this year to repeatedly assaulting a 15-year-old boy.

Detectives from the District Attorney's Office fanned out across the region on Friday, delivering letters to alleged abusers, alerting them that the report would soon make public accounts of their alleged attacks on minors, and giving them a chance to challenge the grand jury's account.

Similar letters went to some senior church administrators.

According to a person who has read one of the letters, it said recipients could only see those sections of the report dealing with their own actions.

The letters invited recipients to appear before the presiding judge, Gwendolyn N. Bright, to swear "an oath of confidentiality" before they could review the material.

After reading selected pages during a monitored session at the District Attorney's Office, people named in the report will have until Aug. 31 to write a rebuttal to the judge. The archdiocese, too, has been given a chance to respond and make objections before the report becomes public.

While unusual, the advance-look procedure is provided for by Pennsylvania law governing grand juries. The law says that when such a report is "critical of an individual not indicted for a criminal offense," the judge may give those criticized a chance to respond.

It is up to the judge whether to append those comments to the final report.

A spokeswoman for Abraham declined to comment yesterday, citing grand-jury secrecy. C. Clark Hodgson Jr., a lawyer for the archdiocese, also declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Cardinal Justin Rigali, who succeeded Bevilacqua as head of the diocese, which encompasses Philadelphia and four suburban counties.

Marie Whitehead, director of the Philadelphia chapter of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, reacted yesterday with mixed feelings when told of the investigation's outcome.

Whitehead said she was "deeply disappointed" that the report did not call for criminal charges against archdiocese leaders. "This has been played out across the U.S.," she said. "Their feet are not being held to the fire."

At the same time, Whitehead said, her group was convinced that prosecutors faced difficult laws and had worked exhaustively to get to the bottom of the scandal. "Just having the truth out there is a huge, huge step," she said.

The decision to not recommend criminal charges reflects a series of legal and factual issues that have hobbled prosecutors. The report is expected to call for changes in the law to make it easier to prosecute abusers.

While the assaults on minors were often horrific, the statute of limitations has run out for prosecutions in virtually every case, according to several people familiar with the investigation.

The report concludes that archdiocese officials often conducted only a cursory inquiry when children or parents came to them with complaints. It also says church officials rarely, if ever, advised victims to call police. Nor did they contact police on their own, even when some priests admitted numerous assaults, investigators found.

In the late 1980s, Bevilacqua instituted a policy called "restricted ministry" in which priests deemed guilty of abuse were reassigned to nursing homes or similar places to minimize their contact with children.

Investigators concluded that some abusers found ways to stay in church posts that gave them access to children. But the investigation did not turn up a single case in which the archdiocese transferred a known abuser who then attacked again in a new parish.

For a time last year, prosecutors contemplated bringing charges against church leaders and even entered into negotiations with defense lawyers over the idea that the archdiocese itself, but not its leaders, might plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of endangering children.

But sources said that idea was dropped, in part because of problems with state law.

Pennsylvania law calls for prosecution of "a parent, guardian, or other person supervising the welfare of a child" who put youngsters at risk.

Experts say the courts have defined supervision of children as providing food and shelter, as opposed to the moral instruction provided by religious institutions.

Beth Lawson, coordinator of legal research and appellate review for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said, "It would definitely be an issue in making your charging decision: Can you establish that this person was a caregiver?"

Abraham convened the grand-jury investigation in April 2002 after disclosure of widespread abuse in the Catholic Church in Boston sparked a nationwide scandal.

In Philadelphia, church officials have said that more than 40 priests had been credibly accused of sexual assaults over the last half-century.

The grand-jury investigation has been an often emotional experience for witnesses and the 23 grand jurors alike.

In some cases, accusers broke down as they testified of long-ago abuse suffered when they were children. Sometimes, jurors wept as well, according to people familiar with the investigation.

But many of the episodes described dated back decades and were far beyond the statute of limitations. It was not until 2002 that the state legislature amended the law to let prosecutors pursue cases involving people who came forward before age 30 to report sexual abuse that took place when they were minors.

The previous cutoff was age 23 - a limitation that sources familiar with the investigation said underpins the decision not to bring new charges.

On Feb. 8, the Rev. James J. Behan pleaded guilty to repeated sexual attacks on a student in the 1970s while teaching religious studies at Northeast Catholic High School, starting when the boy was 15.

In Behan's case, the grand jury was able to sidestep the statute of limitations because he had left the state to serve as a priest in North Carolina shortly after the attacks.

Prosecutors persuaded the judge that Pennsylvania's statute of limitations on the crime of rape did not apply to Behan because he had left the state.
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

}


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org