October 13-19, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
A former ADA offers insight into the clergy abuse probe.
The suicide call came in on a Sunday morning. It was 2002 and the grand jury investigation into Philadelphia clergy abuse was a few months old. Will Spade and another assistant district attorney headed to the home of a witness who had been raped by a priest as a child and was now threatening to kill himself. They spent all afternoon and into the early evening at the man's home, talking, listening, keeping him company.
"It really brought home the emotional turmoil these victims were suffering," recalls Spade, "and gave me a sense of the gravity of the situation."
Spade had seven years of experience at the District Attorney's office when he was assigned to the archdiocese investigation. But nothing, he says, could have prepared him for the two years he would spend on the church probe. Along with four other members of the DA's Special Investigations Unit, Spade often worked up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, interviewing hundreds of victims, church officials including former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and slowly uncovering the shocking scale to which the archdiocese protected pedophile priests.
"There were times when I would come home after a particularly bad day," says Spade, 43, "and I would lay down on the couch with my head in my wife's lap and cry, uncontrollably cry."
Exhausted and emotionally drained, Spade left the DA's office last fall a year before the grand jury's final report was issued to start his own criminal defense firm. (Earlier this year, he represented former City Treasurer Corey Kemp.)
With the grand jury's finding now public, Spade sat down to discuss his own painful experience with the archdiocese investigation.
"It's hard to describe with words," he says. "It is a raw wound."
Under subpoena, the archdiocese was forced to hand over the bounty of records kept under lock and key at their Center City headquarters. About once a month, an archdiocesan attorney would meet Spade or another investigator at the Suburban Station Dunkin Donuts and hand over a new batch of documents, including personnel files and internal memos detailing how Bevilacqua and the late Cardinal John Krol systematically protected abusers.
"It was immediately obvious that the hierarchy were dealing with this not as religious people but like lawyers," he says of the former archbishops. Bevilacqua testified in front of the grand jury on dozen occasions. District Attorney Lynne Abraham has categorized his testimony as evasive; jurors said they would've indicted him for endangering the welfare of children if it were not for the statute of limitations.
Spade cross-examined Bevilacqua and agrees with the report's conclusion that the cardinal "repeatedly claimed to have no memory of incidents and priests that we [grand jurors] will never forget."
Due to confidentiality provisions, Spade can't discuss the specifics of Bevilacqua's testimony, but he says there were many crimes documented in the church files that he will personally never be able to shake.
"I'm sure in 15 years there will be some things I'll forget about this investigation," he says, "but if somebody shows me pages of the report having to do with two priests raping an adolescent girl or a priest inserting a host into an adolescent girl's vagina and telling her she just "fucked Jesus,' I think those are things that will come back to me."
Spade grew up in a devotedly religious Lutheran household. There was weekly mass, Sunday school and the altar boy guild. The investigation had a surprising effect on Spade's faith.
"It reaffirmed that general idea that power corrupts," he says, "but in talking to so many Catholic priests and theologians and having to read Cannon Law, I actually became drawn to Catholicism."
He began attending Catholic mass.
"My wife was raised Catholic," he says, "and I would tell her about how I really liked the faith and she would say "Are you out of your mind? You're seeing what this institution has done to these kids and you're saying you like it?' And I'd say, "No I don't like the institution but I like the faith, I like the intellectual and spiritual part of it."
Throughout the investigation, Spade worked closely with a priest who handled many sexual abuse claims for the archdiocese. The priest cooperated fully with investigators. Spade found him to be truly remorseful for what he had done and he and the priest became friends.
"I asked him once, "Father, you're such a nice guy, how could you have been part of this?'" Spade recalls. "He didn't have any real answer other than it was his job and that he was trained to be obedient to his cardinal."
Spade and his wife have since decided to send their children to Waldron Mercy Academy, a Catholic grade school in Merion that is run by the Sisters of Mercy and not associated with the archdiocese.
"That was important to us," says Spade. "We did not want any school that was actually run by archdiocese officials."
The grand jury met twice a week in the top-floor conference room of a building at 16th Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway, two blocks from where the spire of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul rises into the sky. The victims sat at a long table in front of windows offering a view of North Philadelphia. It was Spade's job to prepare and examine witnesses. Victims' testimony often detailed years of depression, alcohol or drug addiction and marital problems, which they attributed to their abuse.
"Most of the victims were men," says Spade. "It really shakes you up to see a grown man cry."
Spade led the three McDonnell brothers, who were abused by the same priest while growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s, through their grand jury experience. The youngest brother, Brian, who had been anally raped by the priest, spent much of his adult years in mental institutions and once slit his wrists and throat. Spade remains close with the McDonnells and last year helped Brian get discharged from Norristown State Hospital and into assisted housing.
Investigators spent hundreds of hours researching whether criminal charges could be filed. Restrictive statutes of limitations and narrow legal precedents seemed to protect church leaders from prosecution. Some prosecutors, including Spade, felt that indictments should be levied in the slim chance of success. Others argued that a quashed indictment would tie the process up for years and prevent the DA from issuing a scathing report exposing the cover-up.
"It became clear early on that state law just wasn't there for an indictment," he says. Partly out of emotional and physical exhaustion, and partly out of frustration, Spade quit. He now says he agrees that issuing a report was the best direction. "I was emotionally raw and I think my arguments were being driven by my gut," he says.
Victims have told him that the report has helped their healing process. Still, he says, he wishes state law allowed investigators to have done more. Spade will join victims groups later this month in Harrisburg to lobby legislators to ban the statute of limitations in child sexual-abuse cases.
"When someone is harmed, there should be retribution," he says. "I thought that's why we had a legal system."