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Abuse case seeking church records moves forward in Pittsburgh

Tribune-Review - 1/12/2020

Jan. 12--Nearly 18 months after a Pennsylvania grand jury report unmasked decades of allegations of clergy sexual abuse in Catholic parishes across the state and church leaders paid $84 million to abuse survivors, fallout from the report continues to mount in the courts.

State lawmakers began the process of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to give abuse survivors with old claims a day in court even as the state Supreme Court weighs a lower court ruling that could set the stage for such claims even sooner.

Locally, court records show there are more than 20 such suits pending against the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese as well as one in Westmoreland County.

In the latest legal development, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward last week ruled a class-action suit seeking to force the Pittsburgh Diocese to open its abuse archives to survivors may move forward in court.

The ruling comes weeks after a year-end report found seven of the state's eight dioceses had paid $84 million to 564 abuse survivors who agreed not to sue the church.

Such offers held little pull for Ryan O'Connor, a Verona father of two, abuse survivor and committed Roman Catholic whose children attend Catholic schools. He still sees a church in need of greater transparency.

A month after the August 2018 grand jury report was released, O'Connor and Kristen Hancock, a Mt. Lebanon woman who is a reader at Mass and whose daughter attends Catholic school, joined in the class-action suit that seeks not money, but the church's records of all abuse allegations as well as a process for victims to review them for accuracy.

They contend diocesan records that were made public contain gaping holes that suggest the church failed to meet mandatory reporting laws and has created a public nuisance.

O'Connor went public in 2018 with his searing allegations of abuse at the hands of a parish priest as a child growing up in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. He said he wants assurances that children today are safe.

"As a parent, your number one priority always has to be children," O'Connor said. "Knowing what I know can, will and does happen to children with priests, saying that you are in compliance with state law does not make it so. The only way parents should be okay with everything is complete transparency with the church."

Church leaders have repeatedly stressed that the church of today is committed to protecting children. Their lawyers argued they are in compliance with the state law by reporting allegations of child sexual abuse to law enforcement.

The Pittsburgh diocese is aware of the order from Judge Ward but said it is unable to comment on a matter of pending litigation, diocesan Chancellor Ellen Mady said.

"The diocese is in full compliance with the State of Pennsylvania's mandated reporting requirements, and reports all allegations regarding sexual abuse of a minor to the district attorney's office," she said. "We pray for healing for all victims."

O'Connor and Hancock say they need to go further.

Benjamin Sweet, one of the lawyers pressing the suit, pointed to eight clergy names that were blacked out in the grand jury report, another 10 who were identified only as "Pittsburgh priests #1-10" and religious orders whose records were not included.

"Those names should most certainly be released. It is very clear that the grand jury's belief was that this was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of information the church had," Sweet said.

Timothy Hale, a California lawyer who is co-counsel with Sweet, said there are strong parallels between the Pittsburgh suit and successful public nuisance claims he argued in California that forced the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church to release abuse files.

"There are strong parallels in the way these entities battled to keep their secrets secret," Hale said.

Hale said the church relies on technical legal defenses "to avoid having to disclose what we believe to be the truth: that there are countless predatory priests within Pennsylvania whose identities remain known only to the church and to their victims."

Sweet said Ward's ruling marked the first time a judge has granted a member of the public who was not a victim standing to challenge the church to prove it is complying with mandatory reporting laws.

While Ward's ruling affects only the Pittsburgh diocese, she left open the possibility that the state's other seven dioceses could be included in the case if the plaintiffs can amend the suit to include specific allegations against them.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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