HARRISBURG — Attorney General Josh Shapiro had harsh words Thursday for the Carholic bishops who covered up for predator priests and now continue to lobby against legislative reforms intended to help adults who were victims of clergy child sex abuse.
Shapiro expressed optimism that the Legislature will enact reforms despite that opposition.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops on Wednesday voted to establish a hotline for reporting allegations that church leaders are involved in abuse or covering up for priests. Hotline operators would relay allegations to regional supervisory bishops, according to the Associated Press.
“I’ve been completely unsatisfied with their response,” Shapiro said. “Their big idea was to set up a hotline coming back to the church. That’s covering up the cover-up.”
Shapiro’s comments came during a Thursday afternoon interview with CNHI Pennsylvania newspapers at his Harrisburg office that also touched on other topics, including his efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and how state and federal law enforcement are trying to deal with moves by states to legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use.
Shapiro’s office released a grand jury report last August that shed light on decades of abuse by more than 300 priests as well as allegations that church leaders had covered up for priests in many instances.
On the child sex abuse scandal, Shapiro said he’s met with his counterparts in almost every other state in the country to discuss the issue. Twenty of them have publicly launched investigations into the Catholic Church’s conduct in their states, he said.
That includes the Michigan attorney general who filed charges this week against five predator priests, he said.
“The law enforcement response to what we unearthed is just in its nascent stage,” he said.
States, including New York and New Jersey, have passed laws creating avenues for adult victims of child sex abuse to file lawsuits even if the statute of limitations in their cases have expired.
Those reforms have stalled in the Pennsylvania Legislature over opposition from the insurance industry and lobbyists for the Catholic church.
“What I find unconscionable is that the bishops are lobbying to stop these reforms from passing,” Shapiro said. “They’ve spent millions of dollars of parishioners money to lobby lawmakers to have less accountability and less protections for victims.”
A report commissioned by a group of law firms revealed that the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania has spent more on lobbying in Pennsylvania since 2011 than in any other northeastern state. The report put the church’s Pennsylvania lobbying price tag at $5.3 million.. Church officials have said that their lobbying expenses cover a myriad of issues.
Even so, Shapiro said there is reason to be optimistic that the Pennsylvania General Assembly will take action on the statute of limitations reforms.
Shapiro’s office announced last month that it was filing a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin.
Shapiro on Thursday said his office was certainly not the first to sue the drug makrer, but he said his investigation differed in that it documented the link between corporate executive and the distributors who misled the public about how addictive the opioids are.
“The crisis was entirely man-made,” he said. When people can’t get access to pills, they buy heroin.”
Drug users can also turn to the extremely powerful street drug fentanyl, which Shapiro said can be obtained for less than a dollar.
“Think about that, you get hooked on these pills because of corporate greed, you can go to the streets of PA and buy a bag of fentyl for 77 cents.,” he said. “It’s everywhere. These pharmaceutical companies need to beld accountable.”
Shapiro said that he leads a task force of prosecutors who meet with the U.S. Attorney General and the issue of how to respond to state marijuana laws has come up. For instance, one of the challenges is that banks won’t handle financial transactions involving marijuana sales due to the federal ban on marijuana use.
“I don’t have a good answer for you,” he said. “I think we’re trying to work through it. It’s something we’re actively enaged in.
Shapiro declined to say whether he would support a move to legalize recreational use of marijuana, saying that’s a decision that would be made by lawmakers.
He added though that any move to legalize marijuana needs to include a plan for addressing old convictions for marijuana possession.
“They’re going to figure out what to do on their own, my job is to enforce the laws,” Shapiro said. ““From a criminal justice perspective, if they do move forward and legalize it, there has to be an expungement system in place.”