PITTSBURGH (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a first-of-its-kind legal ruling, a Pennsylvania court has ruled that non-victims can move forward with lawsuits against the diocese of Pittsburgh.
Allegheny County Judge Christine A. Ward handed down the court ruling on Tuesday, accepting the plaintiffs' argument that they have standing to sue the Pittsburgh diocese.
The plaintiffs are claiming that the Pittsburgh diocese, along with seven other Pennsylvania dioceses, have created "a public nuisance" by failing to report every allegation of child abuse insofar as not doing so potentially endangers their children. Public nuisance refers to a legal offense in which the injury or damage is suffered by or affects the public at large rather than an individual.
Benjamin Sweet, lawyer for the plaintiffs, noted the decision "is the first time a cause of action has been brought by a non-survivor member of the public and the first time a court has said that is a viable legal strategy, that a private citizen can compel the Church to prove it's complying with the mandatory reporting law."
The court only ruled that the plaintiffs may move ahead with their suit against Pittsburgh; the seven other dioceses won on their argument that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue them.
Spokesperson for the diocese of Pittsburgh 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."
Lawyers for the diocese argued that it is not required to publish the names of credibly accused priests, only to report them to law enforcement. But the plaintiffs are pushing for full transparency and publication of the names of accused predators as proof that the dioceses are complying with mandatory reporting laws.
Victims and their advocates say the need for such a ruling is plainly evident. For example, a Jan. 1 Associated Press (AP) report found more than 900 priests and clergy with credible allegations of sex abuse against them who had been left off of the lists released by dioceses and religious orders.
The AP analysis matched names of accused priests on public diocesan lists against a database of accused priests available at BishopAccountability.org.
The analysis revealed that more than 100 of the former clergy members not listed by dioceses had been charged with sexual crimes, including rape, solicitation and receiving or viewing child pornography.
"No one should think, 'Oh, the bishops are releasing their lists, there's nothing left to do,'" said Terence McKiernan, co-founder of BishopAccountability.org, who has been tracking the abuse crisis and cataloging accused priests for almost two decades, accumulating a database of thousands of priests.
"There are a lot of holes in these lists," he said. "There's still a lot to do to get to actual, true transparency."
Neither the plaintiffs nor their attorneys are seeking monetary awards or damages, but are motivated by the hope for greater transparency in the Church.
Sweet said the plaintiffs "just want the Church to be transparent and to protect their children," adding, "For the court to oblige Church officials to publish its records represents a significant move and may set a precedent for other dioceses to be required to do so."
The plaintiffs' reply brief likewise addressed the need for transparency:
Defendants' most direct and transparent path to resolve a substantial aspect of this lawsuit remains unchanged: an offer of proof to this court that they have complied with their mandatory reporting obligations, and that they have reported to law enforcement each and every one of their current and former agents accused or suspected of childhood sexual abuse.
The brief also cited the recalcitrance of Church officials to comply with codes of accountability: "Instead, defendants' objections make clear their intent to shield perpetrators from discovery, and perpetuate secrecy that endangers today's children. Those objections should be overruled."
Church Militant reached out to the diocese of Pittsburgh for comment on Judge Ward's ruling and was e-mailed this reply:
The diocese of Pittsburgh is aware of the order from Judge Ward. We are unable to comment further as this is a matter of pending litigation. 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. We pray for healing for all victims.
David Allen Zubik is current bishop of the diocese. Disgraced Cdl. Donald Wuerl served as bishop of the diocese from 1988–2006. Wuerl was featured prominently in the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed a total of 301 priests accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children. Ninety-nine of the priests were from the diocese of Pittsburgh.