By Liz Navratil and Angela Couloumbis
Amid a still-boiling legal battle over a secret grand jury report into alleged Catholic clergy sex abuse across Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro has appealed to Pope Francis to step in and persuade opponents to drop their bid to block the report's release.
"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," Shapiro wrote to the pontiff this week. "Your Holiness, I respectfully request that you direct church leaders to follow the path you charted ... and abandon their destructive efforts to silence the survivors."
The attorney general's letter did not elaborate on the reports or indicate which "leaders" are behind the efforts to suppress the document Shapiro says chronicles "widespread sexual abuse of children and a systemic cover-up by leaders" in six Catholic dioceses in the state. His spokesperson, Joe Grace, declined to provide additional detail, saying the letter, sent Wednesday, "speaks for itself."
Greg Burke, a spokesperson for the pope, said it was too early for the Vatican to comment.
Bishops from the six dioceses have previously claimed they are not the petitioners objecting to the report's release, as did a representative for Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
On Thursday, the Inquirer and Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reached out to every diocese in the state and asked about Shapiro's assertions that leaders are backing the fight to limit the report's release. Spokespersons from the Philadelphia, Erie, and Harrisburg Dioceses largely reiterated their prior statements about the case; the other dioceses did not comment.
Justin Danilewitz, a lawyer representing several clergy members seeking changes to the report, blasted Shapiro's letter as an "inappropriate" attempt to pressure his clients by appealing to their supervisors and turning the public against them. He said his clients are trying to exercise their constitutional rights, "not trying to silence victims."
Shapiro's plea to the worldwide leader of the Catholic Church comes as the state Supreme Court weighs if the report should be made public, if so, when, and in what form. The delays have left some victims fretting that their voices will ultimately be silenced once again.
Although the petitioners fighting Shapiro's stated plan to release the document include a group of still-unnamed current and former clergy members, Francis has spoken in recent years of the need for the church to reckon with its history, end child sexual abuse, and support survivors.
Shapiro, in his letter, reminded Francis of some of those remarks. He wrote that the two met in September 2015, when the pope visited St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.
"It was a high honor to receive greetings and blessings from you," wrote Shapiro, who is not Catholic. "I am a great admirer of you and your work -- especially your commitment to fighting for the defenseless."
During that visit, Francis met privately with five people who had been sexually abused by priests, teachers, or family members. He also delivered public remarks, during which he said "God weeps" over such abuse.
"The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors may no longer be kept secret," the pope said in a speech that has since been quoted by a victim's attorney advocating for the report's release.
Despite his public claims of a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse, Francis has drawn ire from some victims and advocates who say he has nevertheless continued to promote or retain bishops despite accusations they failed to advocate for children in the past. They point, for example, to Francis' decision to appoint a Chilean bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse. The pope has since accepted the bishop's resignation.
It was not immediately clear if the pope had seen Shapiro's letter. The Attorney General's Office sent it by mail Wednesday and followed up Thursday with faxes and emails to high-ranking Vatican officials.
Though not expected to lead to charges, the grand jury report, more than 800 pages long, is believed to name dozens of people from the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, and Scranton who were aware of or participated in child sexual abuse over decades.
The two Pennsylvania dioceses not covered by the probe -- Altoona-Johnstown and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- had been scrutinized in past investigations.
Responses from Pennsylvania dioceses to the Attorney General's letter to Pope Francis
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia: "The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has no administrative jurisdiction over the dioceses which were subject to investigation. As such, we would not be suited to comment on recent developments. In addition, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has not, in any way, taken any action to block the release of the report," said spokesperson Kenneth A. Gavin. He added: "My response does rule out financial or other aid to the petitioners by the Archdiocese ... as well as by the Archbishop or by other Archdiocesan officials."
Diocese of Harrisburg: Spokesperson Mike Barley said "the Diocese of Harrisburg has fully cooperated with the Office of the Attorney General. The Diocese and Bishop Gainer strongly support the release of the Grand Jury report and have not filed anything to cause the stay ... However, as we have stated before, it is critical that this report is accurate."
Diocese of Erie: Spokesperson Anne-Marie Welsh reiterated Bishop Lawrence Persico's stated support for the release of the grand jury report and said the diocese has not provided any funds for any of the petitioners challenging the report before the Supreme Court.
The Dioceses of Allentown, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Greensburg, and Altoona did not comment.
Shapiro had been expected to release the report to the public last month. But current and former clergy members -- whose names remain under seal -- appealed to the state Supreme Court, saying making the allegations public violated their constitutional rights to protect their reputations and of due process. The seven-member court then placed a temporary stay on the report's release to sort through the arguments.
Much of the legal battle has played out in secret and under court seal. Only recently did the justices allow some case-related documents to be made public, although in redacted form.
Ten media organizations, including the Inquirer, Daily News, and the Post-Gazette, have asked the court for access to the full report and the names of the petitioners seeking to block its release.
Post-Gazette reporter Peter Smith contributed to this article.