HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A state court system task force wants Pennsylvania to stop issuing grand jury reports, an idea that faces long odds in the Legislature, which would have to pass a new law to halt the practice.
The Supreme Court-appointed task force, consisting of five lawyers and two judges, issued its report last month, just a day or two after lawmakers cast final votes on four bills designed to help victims of child sexual abuse. It was legislation that an investigative grand jury proposed last year, when it found that hundreds of Roman Catholic priests had sexually abused children over seven decades.
The task force’s recommendations are not binding and being forwarded to the high court’s Criminal Procedural Rules Committee. But it will be up to the General Assembly to decide whether to prohibit grand jury reports or, in another recommendation, authorize smaller counties to form regional grand juries.
If the reports are not stopped, the task force majority said, they should at least no longer include information that is critical of people by name if they are not expected to face criminal charges.
A spokesman for the majority Republican caucus in the state House, Mike Straub, said leaders are not inclined to do away with grand jury reports.
“Grand jury reports are one way the courts can communicate with the Legislature,” Straub said, citing the clergy abuse report. “If we dismiss the importance of that work, we are reducing the ability of the three branches of government to effectively communicate and work together in the best interest of Pennsylvanians.”
In the Senate, Republican leaders said they need more time to study the report, while the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Larry Farnese of Philadelphia, said the report was inadequate and wants senators to perform their own review of the grand jury system.
A 15-month legislative battle ensued after the grand jury’s landmark report on clergy abuse was issued in August 2018.
It ended last month when lawmakers passed laws to increase penalties when people who are required to report suspected abuse fail to do so, make clear that victims who sign confidentiality agreements to settle civil claims can still talk to police, and to extend time limits on future civil and criminal cases.
They also began the lengthy process of amending the state constitution to allow a retroactive window for lawsuits that would otherwise be too old to pursue.
Pennsylvania grand jury reports have delved into some of the biggest scandals in recent memory, including a boondoggle incinerator project that nearly bankrupted Harrisburg, illegal use of state workers and state funds to run legislative campaigns, the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, a Philadelphia abortion doctor’s criminal actions and police-involved shootings.
The priest abuse report concluded that 300 Pennsylvania priests had abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades, and that church authorities helped cover up the crimes. Priests who did not want to be named in the report persuaded the state Supreme Court to order their names and other identifying information be redacted before it was published.
Members of the task force aren’t talking about their deliberations, but their report says they heard from critics who said prosecutors sometimes use them for improper reasons, including to pursue political agendas. About half of states currently authorize grand juries to issue reports, they said.
“Such a lopsided system is, in many ways, contrary to a fundamental tenet of the American system of government, namely, the belief that the free and open competition of viewpoints best advances the search for truth and wise governance,” the report said. “A grand jury investigation lacks any competition and any openness.”
They cited concerns that people can end up named in the reports without getting a chance to respond, and said legislative committees and other governmental entities can be better equipped to investigate wrongdoing.
Two dissenting task force members said the reports should remain, noting their record of bringing scandals to light. The seventh member apparently considered the reports a policy question that should be the Legislature’s prerogative.
The state prosecutors’ association and the attorney general’s office defended grand jury reports in the wake of the task force’s recommendation.
“There is some irony that less than 24 hours after the General Assembly enacted historic legislation to better hold child predators accountable and provide remedies for victims — legislation greatly informed by grand jury reports that highlighted abuses by those not charged with crimes — some members of this task force recommended doing away with such reports,” said Greg Rowe, legislative director for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
The attorney general’s office said the report disregarded the transparency about government and powerful institutions that the reports can provide.
Several task force members that were reached for comment offered little detail about their process or the report itself, having agreed among themselves not to talk publicly about individual support or opposition.
“Any time you do something like this there’s going to be criticism,” said Huntingdon County Judge George Zanic, a task force member. “This system has been in place for hundreds of years. I give the Supreme Court a lot of credit for deciding to take a look at it. Now the Supreme Court has the report.”
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