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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Names of Catholic clergy will remain shielded

Angela Couloumbis and Liz Navratil, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- As the Catholic Church undergoes a national reckoning for its handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday ruled it would not release the identities of 11 clerics implicated in a high-profile grand jury investigation of such abuse in nearly every diocese in the state.

In its majority opinion, the high court sided with a group of former and current clergy who claimed that passages that named them in a state grand jury report, released earlier this year, are either inaccurate or unfairly harm their reputations. In that version of the document, they had successfully persuaded the high court to at least temporarily redact those passages.

The report, the result of a two-year investigation by the state Attorney General's Office, chronicled seven decades of abuse in six out of the state's eight dioceses. Its public release this past August sparked a wave of similar state and federal investigations across the country as well as the resignation of one of the nation's top Catholic leaders.

"We acknowledge that this outcome may be unsatisfying to the public and to the victims of the abuse detailed in the report," wrote Justice Debra Todd, who authored the majority opinion. "While we understand and empathize with these perspectives, constitutional rights are of the highest order, and even alleged sexual abusers, or those abetting them, are guaranteed by our Commonwealth's Constitution the rights of due process."

In a statement shortly after the high court's opinion was made public, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said the justices' decision "allows predator priests to remain in the shadows and permits the Church to continue concealing their identities."

He noted that while he is now barred from revealing the clergy members' names, he believes the dioceses implicated in the report can and should share those names with their parishioners and the public.

"I call on the Bishops to do so immediately, consistent with their recent calls for transparency," Shapiro said.

The case before the high court centered around a contention that the state investigation trampled on the due process rights of those under scrutiny.

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Lawyers for the clergy argued that their clients were denied an opportunity to appear before the grand jury to defend themselves, question witnesses or provide contradictory evidence. And they took aim at the right under the law for statewide grand juries to issue highly critical reports even when criminal charges aren't filed in a case.

State prosecutors countered that those named in the report were given the chance to respond through a written statement. They also noted that the allegations contained in the report were supported by the church's own internal records, which prosecutors drew on heavily during their inquiry. They did not bring criminal charges in the vast majority of the priest abuse cases investigated because the criminal statute of limitations had lapsed.

As the case was unfolding over the summer, the justices wrote that they believed the case raised due process concerns but that they were not of "one mind" as to the best way to resolve the problem. They ordered that the bulk of the grand jury report could be released, but that identifying information about clergy members who fought their inclusion in the report should be shielded until the high court could decide their case. The report singled out more than 300 priests -- most by name -- who preyed on more than 1,000 victims over 70 years.

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