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Two Pa. dioceses tried to block grand jury probe into clergy sex abuse, documents show

The opinion offers the first indication that any of the six dioceses actually took steps to quash the investigation, which is looking into seven decades worth of allegations of sexual-abuse and cover-up in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Allentown, and Scranton.

New documents show efforts by the Roman Catholic dioceses of Harrisburg and Greensburg to block a statewide grand jury probe into clergy sex abuse.
New documents show efforts by the Roman Catholic dioceses of Harrisburg and Greensburg to block a statewide grand jury probe into clergy sex abuse.Read moreFile

GREENSBURG, Pa. — The Roman Catholic Dioceses of Greensburg and Harrisburg last year sought to shut down the statewide grand jury investigating sexual abuse by priests in six dioceses, including their own, contending that the creation of the grand jury lacked a legal justification.

The supervising judge of the 40th statewide grand jury dismissed the argument, according to newly unsealed records.

It's the first indication that any of the six dioceses under scrutiny took steps to quash the investigation, which is looking into seven decades worth of allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Erie, Harrisburg, Allentown, and Scranton.

Supervising Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III's order, originally under seal like virtually all grand jury deliberations to date, was unsealed last month in Westmoreland County Court. It's not clear why it was unsealed, but the order was lodged days after several of the dioceses, including Greensburg, publicly declared that they would not oppose the release of the grand jury report.

Spokesperson Mike Barley said the Harrisburg Diocese always cooperated with the probe but believed it belonged with local authorities.

"Our attorneys raised this issue of jurisdiction only to ensure that if charges were brought by law enforcement against individuals, they could be prosecuted with the full weight and authority of the law," Barley said in a statement. "To be clear, in the motion we specifically requested that the investigations be sent to the local district attorneys. The diocese has always supported the release of a grand jury report."

The Greensburg Diocese "has always supported the release of the grand jury report and believes that criminal investigations should continue with prosecutors who have jurisdiction, which would be the relevant district attorneys," said Jerome Zufelt, a spokesperson.

The office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro entered the ruling as an exhibit in its rebuttal to another challenge to the grand jury's legitimacy, filed by the Rev. John Sweeney, a Greensburg priest who was indicted by the grand jury on a sexual-abuse charge.

In replying to the dioceses' challenge, Krumenacker's ruling revealed that the 40th statewide investigating grand jury was directly picking up unfinished business from a predecessor whose term expired in January 2016.

That earlier grand jury released a scathing report in March 2016 on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that described decades of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by church and public officials.

In his opinion, Krumenacker wrote that there were "16 matters being investigated" but left unfinished by the Altoona-Johnstown panel — known as the 37th statewide investigating grand jury. He said the Attorney General's Office sought and received approval to empanel a new grand jury to pick up those cases as well as tips into three more alleged criminal cases.

State law allows the attorney general to seek Supreme Court permission to conduct a multi-county grand jury to investigate "organized crime, public corruption or both," he wrote. Krumenacker, who is president judge of Cambria County, supervised both the 37th and 40th grand juries.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court approved the establishment of the 40th grand jury in January 2016, according to Krumenacker. That indicates, in essence, that even before the release of the Altoona-Johnstown report in March 2016, the sequel was already in the works.

The dioceses' effort to have the grand jury disbanded revolved around the legal steps taken in its first months.

When the office of then-Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane sought and received Supreme Court approval for the new grand jury in January 2016, it cited the 16 unfinished matters as well as three cases that might involve public corruption or organized crime.

But in April 2016, when the Attorney General's Office submitted its first notice to the incoming grand jury of what it would be investigating, it cited cases of child sexual abuse, endangering the welfare of children, and obstruction of justice in the Roman Catholic Church.

Since it didn't cite corruption or organized crime, the dioceses wanted the notice quashed and the grand jury dismissed.

But Krumenacker ruled that the office properly cited those crimes when the grand jury was empaneled in January. Once established, though, a grand jury has "broad authority" to investigate crimes of all sorts.

"Given the nature of the investigatory process it is possible that a matter not involving organized criminal activity or public corruption was the first ready for submission to the [grand jury] even though there were ongoing … investigations involving such activity," Krumenacker wrote.

Although the law restricts which crimes an attorney general's office can prosecute, it can always refer its findings to local district attorneys for prosecution, the judge added: "To require the [Office of Attorney General] to ignore such evidence of potential criminal activity runs counter to logic and would potentially permit criminal activity to go uninvestigated and unpunished."

The multi-year investigation into the Catholic Church began when Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan referred cases to the attorney general in 2012 and 2013.

That was around the time of the public eruption of scandal involving a Franciscan friar, Stephen Baker, who committed suicide when it was revealed he sexually molested scores of boys. Baker had taught in Cambria County and had most recently lived at his order's headquarters in Blair County.

That referral led to the 37th grand jury, which expanded its probe into the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. During that probe, the Attorney General's Office "became aware of similar organized multi-county criminal conduct within other geographic regions of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania."

That led to the creation of the 40th grand jury.

Sweeney faces a pending charge after he was indicted last year by the grand jury, which alleged he forced a fourth-grade boy to perform oral sex in the early 1990s. Through his attorney, he is challenging the indictment on various grounds, among them the attorney general's jurisdiction in what's normally handled by a county district attorney.

That claim that prompted Shapiro's office to file Krumenacker's 2017 ruling to support its legitimate role as prosecutor.

The order remained sealed for months. Judge Meagan Bilik-DeFazio, presiding in Sweeney's case, ordered it unsealed in May, around the same date that Krumenacker held a closed-door hearing in Cambria County, after which Shapiro announced that all dioceses had agreed not to oppose release of the report.

Late this week, Bilik-DeFazio approved a request by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to examine the file once information identifying the alleged victim was redacted.

In the filing, the Attorney General's Office said Krumenacker's order was being appealed, but it could not be confirmed if that appeal was still pending Friday.

The two dioceses separately have a pending appeal of grand jury rules requiring attorneys for witnesses to keep an oath of secrecy outside of grand jury proceedings.

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416.