Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro: The Catholic church is ‘incapable of policing itself,’ as abuse scandal continues

March 31, 2019 6:00 am

Attorney General Josh Shapiro appears at a rally for victims of abuse by priests. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

A little more than two years into his first term, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has hardly been idle.

The Montgomery County Democrat gained national — and international — attention last year with the bombshell release of a grand jury report detailing years of child sexual abuse, and a subsequent cover-up, by six of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses.

He’s sued President Donald Trump’s administration nearly two dozen times, most recently over administration family planning rules designed to choke off the flow of federal money to Planned Parenthood.

Shapiro, 45, a former state House member and Montgomery County commissioner, sat down with The Capital-Star last week for a wide-ranging interview on a number of topics and to insist — again — that he’s only interested in running for a second term.

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Q: You were among 21 state attorneys general who sued the Trump White House over its Title X gag order. Why did you join that action?

Shapiro: I just think the Trump administration continually is trying to undermine women’s reproductive rights. And on this, I think they are illegally getting in between a doctor and, you know, his or her patient. We think that’s wrong, although issues of right and wrong tend to be more in the hands of policymakers.

We think it’s it’s unlawful, we were joined as, as you know, by 21 states. We will … seek an injunction. We’re in the early, early stages of this filing. I think we just [formally] filed in the last week, if I’m not mistaken. So it’ll take a little bit of time to move.

Q: You’re progressive, you support abortion rights. Can you explain how your views were shaped on this issue and how they might have influenced the decision to join the Title X action? 

Shapiro: Let me answer both. But just first, on Title X: I would just maybe respectfully disagree with how you frame the issue. I think that when I file a lawsuit, I don’t file based on progressive views, right, or conservative views or whatever. I file simply based on the rule of law. And if I think the president or his administration is undermining the rule of law, I filed suit, right? 

I would point this out to offer some data to you. I have sued the administration 22 times, right? Some of my colleagues have sued 100 times. OK? And I would also point out that I’ve never lost. And I think that is as a result of, you know, picking your battles carefully, but always based on a singular underlying thing. And that is the rule of law. It’s not about policy. It’s not about politics, it’s not about preference. It’s about the law. Period.

As it relates to a woman’s right to choose and the wider issue you asked me about … really, since I began to get politically active and think about these issues, which happened back in college, and to me, it has always been about, at the end of the day, the woman having an opportunity to make a decision over her own body.

It’s certainly between her and her doctor, and where appropriate between her and her spouse or partner, or family member or whatever is appropriate in her mind. Right? And I just think it’s critically important to protect that decision …  And that’s something I feel very passionately about.

Q: So what if the Legislature passes, and the governor signs, a bill restricting abortion rights? You’re charged with upholding state statute. Would you defend it?   

Shapiro: Look, if a law is passed and it is constitutional, at the state and federal level, I’ll defend it — whether I like it or not. I made that clear when I was running for this office, and I think I’ve made it clear since I’ve been in this office. My personal preference is not the issue. The issue is whether something comports with the rule of law.

Q: Other states are looking to Pennsylvania’s grand jury investigation [of the Catholic Church] as a model. Did you think, when you embarked on it, that you’d end up with something like an instruction manual for other attorneys general to use?

Shapiro: I don’t think we ever thought about the reach of this beyond Pennsylvania, and really my focus the entire time was on the survivors and the work of the grand jury. So I was thinking about those 23 grand jurors. I was thinking about our team of 150-plus people here who [were] working on this case. And of course, I was thinking about all the survivors that I’ve met and heard from and continue, continue to talk to every day.

… And so to answer your question directly, to see our work used as a model, whether it’s, you know, the way we fashioned our search warrant, and how other states are now fashioning their [investigations] to mimic ours, that certainly makes us feel good that, you know, we can in some ways replicate the good work we did here to help survivors and other states.

Q: Has the church learned from this experience, do you think?

Shapiro: It doesn’t feel like the church is capable of policing itself. And I’ve been very clear, it’s not my job to tell the church what they need to do. Internally, right, that’s the job of parishioners. But what is clear is that the church is incapable of policing itself. And, you know, this report provides them with the roadmap, right, and in some ways, it shows them the patterns of abuse. And yet the church continues to ignore those patterns, even though they existed here.

Q: You chose not to join the multi-state action challenging the Trump administration’s emergency declaration. Why?

Shapiro: The reality is, I have not seen a harm done to Pennsylvania. I’ve been very clear that if he [the president] takes $1 from Fort Indiantown Gap, or wherever he might take it from, then I’ll be in federal court the next day. We have a complaint ready to go.

Q: Gov. Tom Wolf has said it’s time for the state to explore the possibility of legal recreational marijuana. The lieutenant governor [John Fetterman] is on his listening tour. Do you still remain opposed to legalization?

Shapiro: Yeah, I mean, look, I’m a law enforcer. If the state chooses to change the laws … what I have said is … they better do something to expunge people’s records and deal with the criminal justice side of this. And that they … involve law enforcement in their discussions.

And so far, I’ve talked to [Fetterman] about it a bunch, and I’ve talked to the governor and others. And I think they recognize the importance of the appropriate time that if they’re going to proceed with this, [they need] to involve law enforcement in their discussions.

The conversation with Shapiro turned to the controversy surrounding an invocation given by freshman state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, that made explicitly Christian references and praised President Donald Trump for his support for Israel. The invocation, which is supposed to be ecumenical and welcoming, was seen as an instance of “Islamophobia” by Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, the Legislature’s first Muslim woman, who took the oath of office that day.

We asked Shapiro, who is Jewish, how he felt about Trump’s recent charge that Democrats are anti-Israel, or perhaps, anti-Jewish; about the often-acrimonious debate surrounding Israel; and aboutthe politicization of prayer.

Shapiro: I think it is dangerous for Israel, and it is bad for America’s national security to politicize the issue of support for Israel.

I think whether it is done in the context of a prayer in the state House, or in an anti-semitic tweet, it is not helpful. When Israel is viewed through a political prism, they are our most important ally in the Middle East and one of our most important allies in the world. And they provide a strategic national security support for the United States. And to undermine that, by using Israel in political terms, I think is really dangerous.

And that doesn’t mean we can’t have robust dialogue and debate about, you know, this policy or that policy or how much in foreign aid. Should there be more? Should there be less? But I just think it is very dangerous when it’s politicized.

The charge that Democrats are anti-Israel is just political rhetoric and complete nonsense. I would not be a member of the Democratic Party if I thought the Democratic Party was anti Israel or anti-Semitic.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.