Grand jury to probe allegations
of abuse by Philadelphia priests
By Christopher K. Hepp and Maria Panaritis
Philadelphia Inquirer - April 24, 2002
District Attorney Lynne Abraham announced today that she
would convene a grand jury to investigate allegations of past
sexual abuse of minors by priests in the city.
The announcement was promptly greeted with a statement from
the Archdiocese of Philadelphia expressing "surprise,
and quite frankly, disappointment."
Abraham said the grand jury would focus on "all allegations
involving priests, whether they are dead, dismissed or retired."
She expected the grand jury to look into allegations going
back at least 35 years.
"We intend to have a full and wide-ranging inquiry to
make sure all laws were complied with, and if they were not,
why not," she said. Archdiocese lawyers had "pledged
their full cooperation," she said, and had agreed to
provide "all relevant information" her office sought.
Abraham said prosecutors also would be mindful of any evidence
of obstruction of justice by the archdiocese or anyone else.
She said she was uncertain how long the investigation might
last, but promised a public airing of its findings.
Abraham's announcement apparently caught the archdiocese
"The Archdiocese of Philadelphia acknowledges with surprise
and, quite frankly, disappointment the decision of the District
Attorney to call a grand jury investigation," read a
statement released soon after Abraham's news conference. The
statement pledged cooperation, and said church officials believe
Abraham's investigation "will find that the Archdiocese
has acted at all times in conformity with the laws of the
The announcement drew criticism from elsewhere as well. The
Catholic League, the New York-based national Catholic civil
rights organization, labeled the grand jury investigation
a "witch hunt against Catholic priests."
"This is exactly the kind of anti-Catholic bigotry that
the Catholic League has feared all along," League president
William Donohue said in a statement.
Abraham's announcement came on a morning when hundreds of
archdiocesan priests were assembling at St. Charles Borromeo
Seminary for a "day of atonement" to pray for victims
of clergy sexual abuse, and as Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua
and other U.S. cardinals were completing a final day of talks
with Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials on how to respond
to the widening scandal in this country.
Abraham's decision to call for a grand jury came after weeks
of building public pressure, as incidents of sexual abuse
of minors by priests have been reported locally and across
the nation. Abraham responded with an initial call in February
for victims to contact her office, and more recently, with
a series of meetings with archdiocesan lawyers.
Until today, her actions were relatively low-key in contrast
with prosecutors elsewhere in the country, who have demanded
church files, launched grand juries, or otherwise publicly
opened up investigations into reports of sexual abuse by priests.
Abraham said today that over the last several weeks her office
has received calls and letters from people who say they were
victims of sexual abuse by priests. She urged others to come
forward by contacting Elizabeth Jobes, assistant chief of
the district attorney's family violence and sexual assault
unit, at 215-686-8094.
In February, the archdiocese said that it had "credible
evidence" of sexual abuse of minors by 35 priests over
the last 50 years, a half century in which some 2,100 priests
in all have served here. Last month, the church also removed
one priest from his post after a new allegation against him
surfaced. Church officials have declined to identify the 35
priests, saying they wanted to protect the privacy of victims
of the abuse.
Asked whether her office would request the names of the accused
priests, Abraham said the grand jury would seek only information
concerning crimes that may have been committed in Philadelphia.
Because the archdiocese takes in Delaware, Montgomery, Chester
and Bucks Counties as well as Philadelphia, it was unclear
how many of the 35 priests might have worked in the city.
Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. and
his Delaware County counterpart, Pat Holsten, said today they
had no intention of convening grand juries at this time. Chester
County's Joseph Carroll said he, too, had no such plans, unless
the archdiocese refuses to provide information he has sought
about any Chester County allegations that are still prosecutable
under the statute of limitations.
Bucks County District Attorney Diane Gibbons could not be
reached for comment. She has asked the archdiocese to voluntarily
provide information about allegations in her county, regardless
of how old.
In cases of child abuse, Pennsylvania has a five-year statute
of limitation that starts running when a victim turns 18.
That law - which some legislators have recently proposed changing
- means abuse that occurred 20 or more years ago most likely
could not be prosecuted.
Abraham said one reason for calling a grand jury was to gather
and review information needed to determine whether a crime
had been committed, and whether it still could be prosecuted.
"Issues such as the statute of limitations, when did
it run, what crimes were committed, when were they committed
if they were committed, these are all prosecutorial decisions,"
she said. "I am the only one empowered to make them because
I am the prosecutor."
Abraham said she also expected the grand jury to be interested
in a report that the Philadelphia Police Department sex crimes
unit had once maintained an "unofficial policy"
of not pursuing criminal cases against priests. This "unofficial
policy" was described by retired Chief Inspector Thomas
Roselli in an article in Monday's Inquirer. Roselli said this
policy was in effect during all the years he oversaw the sex
crimes unit, from 1969 to 1985.
By convening a grand jury, Abraham has chosen an investigative
tactic that gives prosecutors in Pennsylvania broad powers
in compelling testimony and the turning over of documents
or other evidence as part of a criminal investigation. Such
juries also can choose to issue reports and policy recommendations
without calling for criminal charges.
Under state law, a grand jury investigation is secret. Abraham
said this was an important reason for taking this route.
"We wanted to make sure that whatever we do is done
appropriately and quietly, out of the glare of the news media,"
she said. ". . . We want to give people who want to come
forward the confidence to come forward."
Abraham and members of her staff have met twice with lawyers
for the archdiocese in recent weeks. Abraham described those
meetings as "productive." She said she encountered
no reluctance by the archdiocese to cooperate.
Still, she said, she felt the grand jury, with the power
to subpoena testimony from reluctant witnesses, was the "only
way find out what happened or didn't happen."
One reason for that, a former prosecutor theorized, could
be a concern that the archdiocese's cooperation might waver.
"It could also be a situation where, even though the
official representatives of the archdiocese are being cooperative,
the prosecutor expects that further down the road there may
be some elements, maybe individual priests who may not be
cooperative," said lawyer L. George Parry, a former federal
prosecutor and assistant district attorney.
Abraham said she was uncertain where her investigation might
"Is it going to be easy or a piece of cake? No,"
she said. "But will it be helpful and beneficial for
us as a society? I think it will be, if there are criminal
charges to be brought or changes in the system to be made,
or airing of what's right and wrong. I think that will be