Before a recent cross-state flight, Josh Shapiro was stopped in Erie International Airport by an individual who spontaneously told him about being sexually abused. Then, soon after Shapiro landed in Philadelphia, another person recounted a similar story.
Having those types of conversations – with strangers baring their souls about intimate details of their lives – has become a common occurrence for Pennsylvania's attorney general.
The conversations have taken place at receptions, in supermarkets and at his children's sporting events.
One year ago, on Aug. 14, 2018, the attorney general released a grand jury report that provided details about decades of child sexual abuse and coverup in six of Pennsylvania's Roman Catholic dioceses – Allentown, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Greensburg and Harrisburg. Since then, he has become publicly recognized as a leading advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
“Not a single day has gone by since August 14 where a survivor has not come to tell me their story of abuse, or a parishioner has not come to give me a word of thanks for exposing this coverup and this abuse,” Shapiro said. “I wear that pain that they have, each and every day, and it fuels me to continue to fight for them and bring about justice for them.”
He added: “They inspire me.”
Ripple effect of report
Officials in the AG's office, including Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye, spent more than two years in the grand jury process, which was overseen by Cambria County President Judge Norman Krumenacker III. The investigation ultimately resulted in findings of more than 300 Catholic priests allegedly abusing at least 1,000 children.
The report has gained statewide, national and international attention.
Almost 1,900 individuals have called the attorney general's abuse hotline in the past year.
Since the document's release, attorneys general in 46 states have contacted Shapiro's office with at least 20 publicly acknowledging plans to investigate similar allegations, according to Shapiro's count. The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian and countless other major new organizations have reported on the findings.
The U.S. Department of Justice opened a separate investigation, subpoenaing all eight dioceses in the commonwealth.
“I think it is clear that the good work done by the 23 grand jurors and the courage shown by the survivors to share their truth has led to a global reckoning,” Shapiro said.
He thinks the report gained widespread attention for two reasons, first of which, in his opinion, it was the “broadest, most comprehensive ever written by a law enforcement agency – both in terms of the abuse and the coverup.”
Shapiro also believes the report showed that abuse can happen anywhere.
“As other states and other communities look at this, it's not a stretch for them to realize that it's probably happening in their parishes and in their communities as well,” Shapiro said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who has represented victims of clergy sexual abuse across the country, including in the Johnstown region, agreed about the pervasiveness of the problem.
“The report should serve as a reminder for decades to come that children can be sexually molested at any time, any place by any one,” Garabedian said. “And I think the report must be followed up with continued diligence on behalf of the attorney general's office, civil authorities and the public. The report has taught us that clergy sexual abuse can occur at any time, at any place, and individuals must be on guard about that.”
Garabedian was portrayed in the movie “Spotlight,” which told the story of reporters exposing abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.
He said the report “has empowered many victims of clergy sexual abuse and sexual abuse and continues to empower victims.”
Garabedian added: “The report has helped many clergy sexual abuse victims emotionally in helping each victim realize that there are other victims out there. The positive effects of the report will be felt infinitely by a countless number of victims and family members.”
In the document, the grand jury made recommendations, including calling for eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children and creating a “civil window” so older victims may sue even if the time has elapsed. The other two proposals were to clarify penalties for failure to report child abuse and specifying that Civil Confidentiality Agreements do not cover communications with law enforcement.
Measures have passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate – where some Republican lawmakers oppose the two-year retroactive provision.
“Here's what we know for certain – more than 170 House members twice voted to adopt the reforms,” Shapiro said. “In the Senate, I know from my conversations with individual senators, there are at least 40 of the 50 senators who support these four reforms.
"Really, what has happened is that the Senate Republican leadership has taken its direction from the lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance federation, as opposed to listening to survivors and believing their truth. My view is you should never bet against these survivors, and that ultimately they will prevail. And this cynical reactionary approach to following the lobbyists will not be sustainable.”
Shapiro is now looking forward to what he hopes will happen during the next 12 months as a result of the report.
“I expect that more states will lock up more predator priests,” he said. “More states will find, sadly, the same stories of coverup that we found here in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania will finally pass the grand jury reforms. And survivors will be comforted in knowing that they are believed.”