HARRISBURG – The state Supreme Court's decision this week to keep private the names of 19 Catholic Church clergy members accused of sexual abuse is both “disappointing” and “dangerous," according to a lawyer who has filed a class action lawsuit over the scandal.
Timothy Hale of Nye Peabody in California is co-counsel with two Pennsylvania firms in a class action lawsuit seeking to compel the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania to release records and other files connected to incidents of sexual abuse over the past 70 years and in doing so, to abide by mandatory reporting statutes.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled to keep a grand jury report redacted. In it, 301 church officials are accused of sexual abuse, but 19 of those names are blacked out. It was a group of 11 accused that successfully made its argument to the Supreme Court.
“It’s very disappointing, yes. The reality is it’s a dangerous decision for today’s kids. Those are men who should be identified," Hale said.
"I understand there are constitutional issues at play, but when you’ve got men who have manipulated the legal system in order to avoid prosecution, to allow them to then turn around and claim its protections? It strikes me as the wrong decision."
In the Diocese of Allentown, one name remains secret. For other dioceses:
-Two names are redacted out of 41 in Erie;
-None are redacted out of 20 in Greensburg;
-Two are redacted out of 45 in Harrisburg, as is the name of one member of church leadership accused of covering it up;
-Eight are redacted out of 99 in Pittsburgh; and
-Six are redacted out of 59 in Scranton.
Several lawsuits have been filed by survivors of alleged abuse, and most of the priests named in those cases are already disclosed in the grand jury report.
However, three men who don't show up on the list of offenders are alleged to be sexual predators in lawsuits filed by Alan Perer of Swensen & Perer in Pittsburgh.
Father John Unger
One recent lawsuit names Father John Unger, whose name doesn't appear in the grand jury report. The plaintiff in that case says Unger, from 1969-71, abused him at Sacred Heart Elementary in Pittsburgh. That abuse included three acts of sodomy, when the plaintiff was between ages of 10 and 12.
"Unger made several threats to Plaintiff and other of Plaintiff's friends, who were also abuse victims," the lawsuit says.
"Unger told Plaintiff that Jesus would harm his family if he told anyone. This made Plaintiff too scared to report any of the abuse."
Unger died in 2004.
Father George Leech
Another lawsuit says George Leech was assigned to St. Bartholomew Catholic School in Penn Hills, where he abused the plaintiff from 1960-62. The plaintiff was between the ages of 12 and 14.
Leech is alleged to have grabbed the plaintiff's genitals during ice skating trips, as well as telling altar boy-candidates to strip to their undershorts to determine what size smock they would need.
"Plaintiff reported this abuse to the Diocese approximately three times around 2008," the lawsuit says. "He was told the Diocese would 'get back' to him about his reports, but he was never contacted."
Leech died in 2006.
Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua
The only lawsuit filed in Pittsburgh court by a female names two priests whose names are on the grand jury report (Lawrence O'Connell and Edward Huff), but adds allegations against Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua.
Bevilacqua's name litters the grand jury report because of an alleged lack of responsibility from his position in responding to sexual abuse claims. But this plaintiff says he groped her chest during a visit to St. Gabriel's Church in Whitehall.
Bevilacqua died in 2012, having risen to the rank of cardinal.
Identifying the wolves
Hale says that though there were elements of the class action suit that may potentially be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision, the litigation would move forward.
“They should have been found to have forfeited their right to claim the violation of their due process rights and things of that nature the minute they accepted an entity covering up and concealing their crimes, and avoiding criminal prosecution as a result," he said.
“We’re full-steam ahead. We still have every intention of attempting to force these dioceses to perform their obligations as mandatory reporters and identify every one of these men to law enforcement.
"When push comes to shove, if their statute of limitations had expired for criminal prosecution due to the cover-up and concealment of their crimes by these entities, I think there are going to be good grounds to order that information to be publicized."
Hale termed the situation as both a child safety issue and a mental health issue for today’s survivors who may believe that they are the only victims of abuse, and the potential “ripple effects” they may encounter later in their lives – among them, substance abuse and the breakdown of interpersonal relationships and marriages.
“There are so many ways that society is harmed, not just the individual, by keeping these men in the shadows. It’s really, really critical, both to the safety of today’s kids and to the mental health of today’s survivors, that these men be identified," he said.
As to the possibility of those publicly unidentified clergy members continuing to work in an active ministerial capacity, Hale called that “a terrifying concept.”
“It’s a classic wolf-in-sheep’s clothing situation,” Hale said.
Hale also seconded remarks from Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who earlier this week called on the state’s Catholic dioceses to release the names of clergy members accused of sexual abuse to their congregations and parishioners, in the interest of public transparency.
“There is nothing stopping these dioceses from doing that. If their claims of transparency are not just public relations moves, if that’s truly the way these dioceses are now conducting business, that’s exactly what they should do,” Hale commented.
“They should publicly identify them, or at the very least, notify law enforcement and issue a public statement saying, ‘We have received a report of abuse by whatever the name of the perpetrator is, we have now reported that abuse to law enforcement and it is now in the hands of the criminal justice system. It lets the legal system do its job, and it also puts parishioners on notice of who poses a risk to their kids.”
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org