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Inquirer, other Pa. news outlets petition Supreme Court for access to grand jury report on clergy sex abuse

Lawyers for a half dozen Pennsylvania media organizations will file motions Friday morning seeking the release of the grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse of children in six of the state's eight Catholic dioceses. The public release of highly-anticipated report has been temporarily blocked by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Bishop Mark Bartchak of The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown (Pa.) holds a 2016 service for victims of sexual abuse by clergy.  On Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said it had agreed to stay the release of a grand jury report into sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses because of challenges filed by "many individuals" who are named in the report.
Bishop Mark Bartchak of The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown (Pa.) holds a 2016 service for victims of sexual abuse by clergy. On Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said it had agreed to stay the release of a grand jury report into sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses because of challenges filed by "many individuals" who are named in the report.Read moreThomas Slusser / The Tribune-Democrat via AP

HARRISBURG — Seven news organizations went to the state's highest court Friday to try to force the public release of a long-awaited grand jury report detailing allegations of decades of child sexual abuse covered up by Catholic dioceses across the state.

The news outlets, including the Inquirer and Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, are asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to lift its indefinite stay on the report's release and make public the names of the individuals and organizations waging a fierce but secret court battle to block the document from being disseminated.

Lawyers for the news organizations called the report a "matter of extraordinary public importance."

"Needless to say, Report No. 1 [the grand jury report] is of extraordinary importance to the public in general and to abuse victims in particular," Eli Segal and Michael A. Schwartz, the Pepper Hamilton LLP lawyers representing the media organizations, wrote in court papers filed Friday. The coalition also includes the Associated Press, WHYY, LNP Media Group Inc. in Lancaster, and NBCUniversal subsidiaries WCAU-TV (Channel 10) and Telemundo Mid-Atlantic LLC.

Separately, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said his office intends to file an objection on Monday to the state Supreme Court's decision to block the release of the report. He did not give details.

"The people of Pennsylvania have a right to see the report, know who is attempting to block its release and why, and to hear the voices of the victims of sexual abuse within the church," Shapiro said in a statement.

The more than 800-page grand jury report follows a nearly two-year-long investigation by the Attorney General's Office, and is expected to detail alleged clergy abuse in all of the state's Catholic dioceses except for Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown. Those two have already been the subject of similar investigations.

Shapiro had been expected to make the report public by month's end. But lawyers for a group of unnamed individuals and organizations  mounted a behind-the-scenes legal challenge to block its release.

Little is known about the legal maneuvers in the case, as it has played out almost entirely under court seal. Neither side will identify any of the petitioners. Only the names of six of their lawyers have appeared in public documents, and none will say whom they represent.

The judge who oversaw the grand jury's work, Norman A. Krumenacker III, was the first to provide a glimpse into the arguments behind the court fight. In an 11-page opinion issued publicly this month, he wrote that the petitioners had argued that they have a right to hearings to challenge parts of the report to protect their reputations before they are named in it.

Krumenacker rejected their arguments, paving the way for the report's public release. His decision was then appealed to the high court.

Last week, the state Supreme Court issued a tersely worded order saying only that Shapiro's office was barred from publicly releasing the document. Following days of criticism by victim advocates and others, the high court on Monday offered a five-page explanation of its reasoning, saying that concerns had been raised by "many individuals" about the secretive nature of the grand jury process and the ability of some people named in the report to address or respond to the allegations contained in it.

The high court said it needed appropriate time to weigh those petitions and determine if the challengers' rights are being infringed. It did not publicly set a timetable for a decision.

In Friday's court filing, lawyers for the news outlets said that if the justices need more time to consider the challenges, they should order the release of a redacted version of the report, striking out only those sections that apply to the petitioners.

They also asked that the court make publicly available the docket and all filings associated with the legal challenge — with redactions, if necessary. As it stands, the docket is not publicly available.

"Given the scope of the report and the high degree of public interest and concern, particularly for the victims, our hope is that the court acts promptly," said Stan Wischnowski, executive editor and senior vice president of Philadelphia Media Network, owner of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and "The size of our media coalition represents the gravity this report will have across Pennsylvania."

Lawyers for the news outlets argue that Krumenacker, the judge who supervised the grand jury, found that the report was "supported by the preponderance of the evidence" and that its release would not "prejudice fair consideration of a pending criminal matter," as required by law.

Krumenacker, the lawyers wrote, also used his discretion to apparently allow people who are named in the report, but are not charged criminally, to review it before its public release and attach a response to it.

"As the supervising judge explained, this level of process was more than adequate, and to find otherwise would fundamentally alter the nature of investigating grand juries and thus undermine the Legislature's intent in passing the Investigating Grand Jury Act," Segal and Schwartz wrote.

Earlier this week, more than a half-dozen victims, many of whom testified before the grand jury, privately met with Shapiro in Harrisburg for two hours. Most were distraught when the Supreme Court placed a stay on the report's release. The meeting with Shapiro, several said, was intended to reassure victims that the Attorney General's Office was working to make the report public.

"A lot of us victims were appalled and angry and hurt" by the high court's decision, said Jim VanSickle of the Pittsburgh area after the meeting with Shapiro on Thursday.

"I just want this thing to come out," said VanSickle, who said he was abused as a teen by a priest in the Diocese of Erie between 1979 and 1982. "I have so much more to say, but until this comes out, your hands are tied a little bit. Plus, I want everyone to read it. They will understand that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes."

That priest, David Poulson, was charged last month by the state Attorney General's Office with indecent assault and other crimes — a case that grew out of the grand jury's work.