'We named names': Pa. law didn't cover child sex crime victims. That didn't stop this D.A.

Written by Joel Shannon/The York Daily Record | Mar 10, 2018 12:30 PM

"I knew that clergy sex abuse of all kinds is deep seeded, long running and involves cover ups," said former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who named priests accused of sexually abusing children, during her grand jury investigation. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record)

(Undated) -- The document she was about to present to the press was historic: More than 400 pages that described sex crimes against children in horrendous, relentless detail. 

More than a decade later, activists credit the report for setting a precedent in Pennsylvania: This state -- more than anywhere else in the nation -- exposes the truth of child sexual abuse, even if convictions aren't possible.

The 2005 report received national attention in a recent Newsweek article. It is the subject of a forthcoming documentary entitled Dark Secret. And it is credited as a major influence in an ongoing statewide investigation into sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church.

But as she unveiled the report, Lynne Abraham also likely disappointed many victims.

"I'm sorry, but we couldn't indict anybody."

That's what John Salveson remembers the Philadelphia District Attorney telling him in 2005 before she presented her grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

A Catholic priest had sexually abused Salveson when he was a teenager in Long Island. Salveson helped Abraham's team work with victims of childhood sexual abuse in their investigation -- which spanned years.

Although more than 10 years have passed since Abraham issued her report, the anger still is evident in his voice. That anger is directed at abusive priests and the people who protected them: "they're getting off scot-free," he said. 

 According to Abraham, there was a good reason for that.

Crimes, but no convictions

In November 2017, Newsweek published an expose entitled "Catholic church priests raped children in Philadelphia, but the wrong people went to jail."

The piece was not about Abraham or her report. It was about what happened after she left office: Bungled attempts to get convictions for the abuse that had occurred in Philadelphia.

Abraham felt that pressure when leading her investigation too. But, with the exception of a single priest who was subject to a technicality, she knew the law wasn't on her side.

The report said that Pennsylvania law at the time didn't account for the "powerful psychological forces" that often keep childhood sexual assault victims from coming forward. So it found most cases against priests had passed their statute of limitations.

And the report found that Pennsylvania had no laws addressing the actions of church officials who had allegedly covered the crimes up.

So, instead of chasing convictions she didn't feel she could get, she wrote about what she found. 

The report made recommendations for changes in the law, and Abraham has seen progress on all the reports' criminal law recommendations since the report was published. But mostly its documented alleged crimes: rape after rape; cover-up after cover-up.

Most prosecutors in Abraham's position have taken different, easier paths: Some quietly negotiated settlements. Some indicted who they could and moved on. A few have issued short reports (including one from New York that Abraham mockingly called "pathetic").

The church for its part has criticized her report, saying in a 2005 response that it was a "sensationalized, lurid, and tabloid-like presentation of events that transpired years ago."

Today, the church says that it has taken strong action to prevent child abuse.

"Sexual abuse of minors is a societal evil that can rear its head anywhere. It's an issue in nearly every profession, in millions of private homes, and in public institutions. It is not solely a Catholic issue, but the Catholic Church has done more than any other institution in recent years to combat the problem," said Kenneth A. Gavin, chief communications officer for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in a February 2018 emailed statement.

That has included training, a victim assistance program and rigorous background checks.

But Salveson is still angry that full justice hasn't been obtained. His anger is directed at institutions (including the church) and laws -- not Abraham or her efforts. For her, he has "more admiration ... than I can even express."

Although she didn't secure convictions, she did something else. She gave survivors of childhood sexual abuse like him hope and optimism.

Advocates say victims often find great comfort in having their experience acknowledged by officials; it helps them cope with shame and self-doubt common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

The report represented a "highly credible entity exposing the truth," Salveson said.

The truth as told in the report: Catholic priests brutally raped children and the church systematically covered it up.

No detail was spared.

"When we say abuse, we don't just mean 'inappropriate touching' (as the Archdiocese often chose to refer to it). We mean rape. Boys who were raped orally, boys who were raped anally, girls who were raped vaginally," the report states.

It immediately went on to list 10 such examples.

The document is one of the only American reports on child sexual abuse that had a clear vision: "You have to name names," Abraham said.

It wasn't an easy task. But it had a lasting impact.

A snowball effect

In the early 2000s, the Catholic sexual abuse scandal was rocking the nation.

The Boston Globe published Pulitzer Prize winning coverage in 2002 that reported on rampant sexual abuse of children in the Boston Archdiocese -- and the church's cover-up of that abuse. 

That's when prosecutors across America and the world began to face the same dilemma as Abraham: How to investigate a set of crimes that were exceedingly difficult to prosecute.

Since then, justice for American victims of childhood sexual abuse in the Catholic church has become a patchwork quilt that varies from state-to-state, district-to-district, diocese-to-diocese

Charles Gallagher III, who led the Philadelphia investigation as its senior prosecutor, said the approach Abraham took is possible anywhere in the nation -- if you have the determination to do it.

But it's an unusual road to justice: Grand juries usually are a step toward an arrest, a conviction. They don't determine guilt or innocence; they determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to bring a case to trial.

They have the authority to issue a report. But when they do, it's typically to recommend changes in the law.

Since 2005, Pennsylvania has repeatedly used Abraham's special tactic of using a  grand jury to issue findings of an institutional cover-up and naming defendants who aren't prosecuted. That's unusual in America.

"Pennsylvania is at the forefront of investigating ... sexual abuse allegations," said ​ Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who runs a sexual abuse law firm. Garabedian was portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the 2015 film "Spotlight" about the Globe's reporting.

Pennsylvania grand juries have issued half of the nation's reports on Catholic sexual abuse, according to, a watchdog website.

That's not counting similar reports on alleged sexual abuse at Penn State in the Jerry Sandusky scandala report on sexual abuse that occurred at Buck County's Solebury School and an ongoing statewide grand jury into alleged sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

It's a snowball effect started by Abraham's investigation, said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law expert who advocates for statute of limitation reform for child sex crimes. Hamilton served as an outside consultant on Abraham's report, is the CEO of CHILD USA and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Abraham's work set a precedent in the state: Whether or not we can get conviction, we need to know what's happening in our district, Hamilton said.

It's an approach not unique to Pennsylvania: New Hampshire issued an extensive, statewide report in 2003, for example. And it's worth noting that the number of reports in Pennsylvania still is limited: only five specifically on Catholic sexual abuse. 

The state Attorney General's office is currently investigating six of the state's eight dioceses. That's in the wake of another report which investigated abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown archdioceses and also named accused priests.

The statewide grand jury has already recommended charges against the Rev. John T. Sweeney of Greensburg in July 2017, accusing him of using his position to force a 10-year-old-boy to perform oral sex in the early 1990s.

But even though Pennsylvania leads the nation in such reports, the majority of Pennsylvania dioceses have not been cited in a report.

Abraham and Gallagher suspect that's because such reports require a tremendous amount of determination and effort. They say they found that out the hard way.

'This story had to be told'

Years before Abraham presented her reports, her pile of newspaper clippings was growing.

They were mostly short stories from around the country: An accused priest here; a lawsuit against the church there. It was weighing on Abraham's mind.

"Gee, are we the luckiest ... archdiocese in the whole world? ... I mean, how did it skip us?" she wondered.

When the Philadelphia Archdiocese publicly acknowledged 35 credibly accused priests, Abraham acted. 

She gathered her deputies and tasked them with securing a list of those 35 priests from the church.

"And of course, uh, (the church) turned us down," she said.

Political advisers told her to drop it. Taking on the Catholic Church was political suicide in a city where Catholics make up about a third of the population. And hers was a valuable political position: Recent Philly D.A.s had gone on to become governors and U.S. senators. 

If you know anything about Lynne Abraham, who was at one point labeled by The New York Times as "The deadliest D.A." for her aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, it shouldn't be surprising what followed.

She did not drop it.

"Well, if I'm not elected again, I'll do something else," she said. "I don't care."

She did not shy away from conflict with the church -- she said they got no special treatment from her office. "You're either going to give me what I want and cooperate, or we're going to bring you into court," she remembers telling church officials.

That kicked off an investigation that spanned over three years. Abraham said she went into it with an open mind, hoping that she could confirm the church's report and say they cooperated with her investigation.

She picked a team of Catholic investigators and expert witnesses, both for their knowledge of the church and for integrity concerns: "I wanted them to investigate, essentially, their own church. Not my church. Not your church."

She said her team was blocked at every turn. (The church in its response to her report said it "cooperated fully").

Abraham said "it took an unbelievable amount of pressure" to get the documents needed for the investigation -- personnel files and "secret archives" that cataloged clergy sexual abuse allegations.

Instead of 35 credibly accused priests, she said her investigation uncovered about 160. She believes a longer investigation would have revealed even more. 

In the final report, the number of credibly accused priests was listed as "at least 63." It includes detailed case studies of 28 priests and church officials.

She said the files revealed "rank corruption inside what appears to be a great church." Church leaders knew about the abuse and had complex systems in place to shield themselves and the church from legal responsibility.

It was always her intent to write about what she found -- good or bad -- Abraham said. So that's what she told her team to do, knowing her name was going on the report, months before voters went to the polls.

At the end, she proved the naysayers wrong and won re-election in a landslide.

She remembers visiting Catholic churches after the report's release, expecting hostility. She was greeted with standing ovations, she said.

"This story had to be told, and somebody had to tell it. And I didn't care who else was going to tell it -- I was going to tell it. And I'm grateful to all the men and women in the office who did all of the work."

'Neither fair nor accurate'

When Abraham's report was released, the response from the Catholic church was immediate: A 73-page rebuttal.

That document presented the 2005 report as anti-Catholic and misleading: "... the District Attorney's Office has abused its power, and squandered the resources of the grand jury. The report can have no positive impact because it is neither fair nor accurate."

The rebuttal said Abraham misused the grand jury process, pointing out that, unlike a trial jury, grand juries see only the evidence the prosecutor wants them to see and do so in secret. Grand juries can issue findings, but have no legal authority to prove an allegation.

The report also failed to acknowledge changes the church had made in response to the clergy sexual abuse problem, the response said.

Abraham was trying to convict in the court of public opinion what she could not prove in a court of law, amounting to "reckless rhetoric, dispensed from any burden of proof."

Mention the church's response to Abraham, and her voice will rise in anger: "How does child molestation become fair? What's fair about that? How dare they?" 

She said the evidence largely came from the church itself: "It's from their own records! I mean, we didn't make this stuff up. ... Where do you think we got this information from?"

Despite the church's 2005 criticism, Salveson, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, thinks the report was a positive step.

Participating in grand jury investigations brought about a sense of justice -- or at least affirmation. Someone in power cared -- they were doing something.

But ultimately, it's not enough for Salveson: "It never gets proven in a court of law." 

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record.

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