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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 off guard.

"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 Commonwealth."

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 lead.

"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 beneficial."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests