N.J. to Investigate Priest Sex Crimes and Alleged Cover-up by Catholic Church
By Kelly Heyboer and Ted Sherman
NJ Advance Media
September 6, 2018
|N.J. announces launch of task force into sex abuse coverup. (Thinkstock Photos)|
New Jersey officials Thursday announced the creation of a special task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy within the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey, and any efforts to cover up such abuse.
The stunning move was just the latest fallout to come in the wake of the recent disclosures by a recent Pennsylvania grand jury, which graphically detailed the horrific sex abuse by priests who preyed upon children for decades, sparking a national outcry that continues to grow.
Earlier in the day, the New York attorney general's office issued subpoenas to every Catholic diocese in the state, as it, too, embarked on a major investigation of sex crimes committed and covered up by priests. The subpoenas seek documents relating to abuse allegations, payments to victims or findings from internal church investigations.
Here in New Jersey, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said he would appoint former acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino to head the newly formed task force, which will have subpoena power through a grand jury to compel testimony and demand the production of documents.
"I was deeply troubled to read the allegations contained in last month's Pennsylvania grand jury report," said Grewal, noting that the scathing report revealed that sexual assaults on children, and efforts to cover up such assaults, were far more widespread than was ever thought possible.
"We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here," he said. "If it did, we will take action against those responsible."
|New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal (Jeffrey Granit | NJ Advance Media file photo)|
The explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report bared monstrous details of hundreds of priests who preyed on more than 1,000 children. "Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades," said the report, which described in detail the criminal abuse of children.
In a separate high-profile scandal within the church that also came to light in recent months, sex abuse allegations kept hidden for years led to the resignation in July of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark and Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in addition to New Jersey and New York, authorities in Missouri, Illinois and other jurisdictions have also opened investigations.
In New Jersey, the special task force will bring together a team of detectives and prosecutors from county prosecutor's offices and the state Division of Criminal Justice.
The state also set up a dedicated hotline to report allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. Grewal said the hotline will be staffed by trained professionals and operate on a 24/7 basis. The toll-free number is (855) 363-6548.
The New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide advocacy group, praised the attorney general's decision to take action.
"The attorney general's decision to begin an investigation into the Catholic archdioceses of New Jersey is a step in the right direction," said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Over the last few years, New Jersey has taken strides to create better, more affirming systems for survivors. Today's action strongly complements that."
Mark Crawford, the state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he has personally asked the last ten New Jersey attorney generals to investigate priest sex abuse in the Catholic Church, but had no success. The news that the state is convening a task force is long overdue, he said.
"I don't want to sound gleeful. But I'm relieved," said Crawford, a victim of priest sex abuse. "When I heard the news, I cried."
State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who had pushed Grewal to embark on an investigation similar to that in Pennsylvania, said this was what he had long hoped to see from the state.
"I am thankful that our new attorney general has taken these steps. Every abuser and rapist needs to be exposed, and any institution or leader who enabled and covered up of these crimes against children should be exposed and held accountable," Vitale said.
The attorney general's announcement is expected to mean New Jersey's dioceses will be required to turn over their files on priest sex abuse allegations and settlements.
"As we have with local law enforcement authorities, the Diocese of Camden will be open and cooperative with the New Jersey Attorney General and will readily comply with his requests for information and documents," said Michael Walsh, a spokesman for the Diocese of Camden.
In addition to investigating allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, Grewal said the state task force will also conduct a comprehensive review of existing agreements between the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey and state law enforcement.
Those agreements grew out of a 2002 Memorandum of Understanding between the state's five dioceses, the attorney general's office, and several county prosecutors' offices, mandating policies and procedures to report potential cases of sexual abuse within their churches to law enforcement.
Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said he is confident the task force will find that the New Jersey dioceses have complied with the 2002 agreement.
"We regret that in decades past, some in the Church failed in their responsibility to protect children. However, today, no institution, public or private, has done more to prevent abuse than the Catholic Church in New Jersey. We will remain vigilant to ensure a safe environment for every child we serve," Brannigan said.