As a former prosecutor in Philadelphia, I know the importance and the power inherent in the use of the grand jury as a method by which to discover evidence and to indict a person for criminal conduct. The grand jury can also be an effective entity in reporting on misconduct or inefficiency in our government or other societal functions by issuing reports with specific recommendations about how to remedy any deficiencies found through its investigation. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has employed the statewide investigating grand jury to compile, what he states, is a wide-ranging and stinging report on child abuse and related criminal conduct in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania halted the distribution of the grand jury report after receiving many appeals that raise important constitutional issues. These include questions regarding due process, fairness, and deprivation of personal reputational rights as a result of the grand jury's secret deliberations and the inability of many of the named clerical members of the Catholic Church to defend themselves against allegations contained in the report. The affected parties have identified issues before the Supreme Court that could impact every citizen in Pennsylvania, not just the named clergy.
As a 20-year veteran prosecutor and with 21 years on the court itself, I questioned the action of the Supreme Court in halting dissemination of the report, given Attorney General Shapiro's insistence on the importance of its release.
But after reviewing the Supreme Court opinion, I agree that important constitutional rights are at risk of being denied because of issues pertaining to procedural aspects inherent in the Grand Jury Act and the impact on individual reputational rights.
The Pennsylvania Constitution places an individual's reputational rights on the same plane as a citizen's right to life, liberty, and property. I agree with the court's action, and I agree with its decision to assign all the parties concerned immediate hearings on the constitutional issues identified in the process and the substance of the report. I am sure that the victims of the terrible abuse will be allowed to present their views to the court.
It would seem that Attorney General Shapiro would have a strong interest in protecting each of our citizens' rights as identified in the opinion by the highest court of the Commonwealth. But, the attorney general has insisted on the release of the report in spite of apparent quasi-official accusations of misconduct against many named but uncharged individuals that resulted from the secret ex parte grand jury proceedings in which there was no opportunity for an individual to defend against the allegations. Attorney General Shapiro even sought the unheard of and extraordinary intervention of the Roman Catholic pontiff, the Vatican head of state, in what is a uniquely Pennsylvania issue in our state courts.
An important function of a grand jury report, particularly a non-indicting grand jury report, is to advise or recommend ways to address the issues discovered by the investigation. The Supreme Court's decision allows the grand jury's report and recommendations if any, to be released to the public.
Meanwhile, the constitutional rights of individuals to reputation and the presumption of innocence will be protected through hearings in a proper tribunal. What is called for is exactly what the Supreme Court has ordered: a rational discussion of the issue by all sides in order to address the important constitutional questions that have arisen in the grand jury report.
Ronald D. Castille is the former Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from 2008 to 2014.