Lawyers criticize prosecutor's appeal to pope in abuse probe

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Pennsylvania's top prosecutor claimed in a letter to Pope Francis that at least two leaders of the Catholic Church are trying to block the release of a grand jury report alleging child sexual abuse in six of the state's dioceses before asking him to intervene.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro sent a letter to Pope Francis on Wednesday saying anonymous petitioners had filed court actions to stop the release of the report that details the abuse and cover-ups by church officials. He urged the Roman Catholic Church's top official to reach out to Pennsylvania's Catholic leaders and urge them to withdraw their objections.

Shapiro wrote that he appreciated the pope meeting with survivors of sexual abuse when he visited the Philadelphia area in September 2015, and the remorse he expressed.

"Sadly, some of the clergy leading the church in Pennsylvania have failed to heed your words," he wrote. "Credible reports indicate that at least two leaders of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania — while not directly challenging the release of this report in court — are behind these efforts to silence the victims and avoid accountability."

Neither the letter nor the news release issued by the office give specific information about the reports or name the leaders Shapiro believes to be involved in orchestrating the objections. Shapiro noted the bishops from the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses, which collectively minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics, had agreed previously not to challenge the release.

The Vatican didn't immediately respond to The Associated Press' requests for comment on the letter Thursday.

The grand jury report — the result of an almost two-year investigation into six of the state's eight dioceses — is stalled in the state's Supreme Court while the justices consider arguments from former and current members of the clergy who filed the petitions anonymously but whose names allegedly appear in the report. Lawyers for those petitioners have argued releasing it would damage their reputations and violate their constitutional rights.

A lawyer representing some of those petitioners said Thursday that the letter from Shapiro was "a stunning and highly unusual approach to litigation."

Attorney Justin Danilewitz said the letter was an attempt to "reach out to in effect the highest supervisor of litigants who are engaged in litigation in order to bring pressure to bear on those litigants to achieve the outcome that he seeks."

Danilewitz said Shapiro and his office should make the allegations on the court record rather than in an open letter.

"He has accused the petitioners in this case of being unwilling to reveal issues that are at the core of their arguments about reputational harm, which he knows full well they are unable to do. But at the same time he is making these thinly veiled accusations in this letter, without being willing to back them up with facts," he said.

Judge Norman Krumenacker in his lower court decision wrote that the attorney general's two-year investigation involved allegations of child sexual abuse, failure to report it, endangering the welfare of children and obstruction of justice by people "associated with the Roman Catholic Church, local public officials and community leaders." He wrote the grand jury had heard from dozens of witnesses, examined numerous exhibits and reviewed over half a million pages of internal documents from the archives of various dioceses.


Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

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