Lynne Abraham doesn’t quit.
In the midst of a global pandemic, the 79-year-old former Philadelphia District Attorney has commandeered her dining room table so that she can work from home. Social distancing has limited interviews to phone calls and email, but she paints a picture with her words.
“My dining room table is a dog’s breakfast — the same as any desk I’ve ever sat behind,” she noted.
Abraham is a partner at the law firm Archer & Greiner, P.C. This might come as a surprise to the firms who refused to hire women in 1965, the year she graduated from Temple Law School as one of two women in her class and had difficulty finding work. Even more surprising might be her four terms as the city’s DA and her 2015 mayoral campaign.
She knew the odds were against her in many of her professional endeavors. It never stopped her from trying.
“I ran for something that I wanted, but was aware that it was highly unlikely I would be successful,” she said of her campaign. “But I’m a risk taker. Whether it’s Mozart or a scientist or Elon Musk, you don’t advance by being comfortable. You take a risk.”
Her risk-taking approach played a big role in her decision to launch an investigation into sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in 2000. That, and her love of newspapers.
“I was and am an inveterate newspaper reader. I do not get my news from the television,” she explained. Her go-to sources include The New York Times and The Washington Post, and occasionally the Miami Herald and San Francisco Chronicle.
“Since I read a lot of newspapers, I happened to see quite often, at the bottom of the page, no more than an inch, two inches at most, a Catholic priest being relieved from his duties due to sexual abuse of a minor, a child,” she said.
She started reading about more widely publicized cases of sexual abuse in Louisiana and Boston.
“I thought, it can’t just be it happened in these places, it must be happening here too. We ought to look into this.”
At the same time Abraham was learning of these cases, the Inquirer published an article in which Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua claimed there were only 36 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
“They put the story out and I said, ‘That didn’t sound right,’” Abraham said. “So I spoke to the men and women in my office and I put together a team of investigative attorneys and support staff and I announced that I would submit the investigation to the grand jury.”
The reaction was explosive.
“You would have thought I’d dropped a bomb on the city of Philadelphia,” she recalled. “The church has always exerted a very strong force, and I believe Roman Catholicism is still the leading religious affiliation that people subscribe to. Many public officials were Catholic, and they called me up and chewed me out. Called me a Jew, told me that my career was over.”
Nevertheless, she persisted.
In 2005, Abraham and her investigative team held an open press conference to release their findings.
“Not only was the figure that Bevilacqua submitted a total lie, we found that over 130 priests had committed sexual abuse of minor children,” Abraham said.
The church wrote a rebuttal to the report and denounced the investigation, but that only spread the findings further. Even Abraham’s most severe critics were shocked.
“Everyone who threatened me turned around and said, ‘Holy smokes! Is that going on?’” she said.
She found that the report made victims feel liberated after years of church leaders covering up abuse.
“They didn’t want money, they didn’t want fame, they didn’t want to be famous, they just wanted to be believed.”
Contrary to her critics’ predictions, the investigation had virtually no impact on her career. In fact, she believes telling the truth helped her win reelection to a fourth term as DA.
Although she has transitioned from criminal law to civil law, Abraham continues to lend her expertise to fighting child abuse.
She advises and supports Marci Hamilton, the CEO and academic director of Child USA, the national think tank for child protection. Hamilton worked on her investigative team as an expert on clergy sexual abuse.
“I testified some years ago to try to get New York to try to pass a civil window to allow sexual abuse victims to bring forward testimony after the statute of limitations had passed. I support her with donations and any kind of help I can offer to give victims a method or means to be compensated for the injury and harm they have suffered,” Abraham said.
Abraham has approached our current challenging times with the same resolve that defined her legal career. Being confined to her house didn’t stop her from celebrating Passover.
“No seder plate or Haggadah. Just lots of yummy gefilte fish, chicken matzah ball soup, chicken and fresh veggies,” she said.
Her favorite Passover dish? “A Matzah Charlotte made by my bubbe, Clara, with apples, raisins, eggs and matzah, of course. Too divine for words and never eaten since her death.” For the uninitiated, a Matzah Charlotte is a baked dessert similar to a kugel or bread pudding.
Abraham views Passover and other Jewish holidays as an opportunity to celebrate endurance.
“I love any holiday which celebrates the will of us to survive against all odds and obstacles, and demonstrates our extraordinary resilience, resolve and strength to live, without ever losing our love of learning, creativity and humor,” she said.