Lawyers for clergy whose names were redacted from a scathing grand jury report on child sex abuse released last month argued before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday that the high court should adopt the interim redacted report as final, contending that the grand jury process denied the accused their due-process rights and a meaningful opportunity to challenge the allegations.
"We don't think there is a remedy" to now safeguard their constitutional right to defend their reputations, attorney Justin Danilewitz argued before the seven justices during a hearing at Philadelphia City Hall. He repeatedly referred to the "shaming and naming" of priests in the report who he said had not had a chance to cross-examine their accusers.
But Ronald Eisenberg, senior appellate counsel in the state Attorney General's Office, which spearheaded the two-year grand jury investigation, argued that remedies addressing due-process concerns are available and could be ordered by the court.
Their arguments represented the latest salvos over the explosive Aug. 14 report that singled out more than 300 priests in six of the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses accused of preying on more than 1,000 child-sex-abuse victims by being an offender or failing to report abuse.
About 30 clergy members' names were redacted amid legal wrangling over the fairness of the office's investigation and the public report. The Attorney General's Office wants all the names released. The justices gave no indication how or when they would rule.
As he had written in a Sept. 18 court brief, Eisenberg proposed that the grand jury could be recalled for the limited purpose of addressing the clergy members' disputes in the report, or that a new grand jury could be impaneled to hear the claims.
He also proposed that the clergy petitioners could testify before a recalled or new grand jury "if those witnesses choose to testify" or have their lawyers submit briefs. Then the names could be included.
"Why do you have to name names?" Justice Christine Donohue asked.
Eisenberg responded that anonymous findings have less value than those that are not anonymous and it's important to name names so the public knows who is being accused or referenced in the report.
Danilewitz, who represents petitioners, would not say after the hearing how many of them his firm and other firms represent before the high court, nor would he say if all the petitioners were priests whose names had been redacted.
But he indicated in a July filing that he was writing on behalf of nearly two dozen current and former clergy members. They remain anonymous.
Regarding Danilewitz's argument that redacted names should remain so, Justice Max Baer responded that "your average Pennsylvanian" wouldn't be able to name five priests who were named in the report.
"They're not Bill Cosby. They're not Jerry Sandusky. So how are they tainted?" Baer asked.
Danilewitz replied that he shuddered to think what would have happened if the court hadn't previously ordered the redaction of some names in the report. He mentioned a priest in Indiana who was attacked by someone last month after the release of the Pennsylvania report. That priest was not named in the report and, according to other priests, hasn't been accused of wrongdoing, according to the Washington Post.
Danilewitz's cocounsel Christopher Hall argued that the "power of the internet … makes it impossible" to safeguard clients' due-process right to defend their reputations if they were named in a report even if they were to proceed with new procedures proposed by the Attorney General's Office.
When Justice David Wecht asked Hall why he didn't just ask the justices to adopt the interim report as the final report and then seek new grand jury procedures through the state legislature, Hall replied: "That's exactly the relief we're seeking."
The justices also weighed whether the high court was the appropriate branch of government to adopt new grand jury procedures as opposed to the legislature.
The grand jury probe exposed 70 years of abuse in nearly every Catholic diocese: more than 1,000 victims, 301 predator priests, and dozens in the church hierarchy who knew about the abuse but buried it to shield the institution.
The report focused on the Dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton. It excluded Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown because previous grand juries already had scrutinized their handling of clergy-sex-abuse claims.
In an emailed statement after the hearing, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said he "supports the release of a full, unredacted report by the grand jury in its entirety. Every name of a predator priest left redacted means the silencing of a victim's voice."