The nation’s investigations into the Catholic Church are only just beginning

By Karen Tumulty
October 07, 2018

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., on Aug. 14.
Photo by Matt Rourke

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) has shaken the Catholic Church to its foundation — and he is not finished yet.

It has been nearly eight weeks since a Pennsylvania grand jury released a bombshell report alleging that more than 300 priests across the state sexually abused children over seven decades, and that the church hierarchy in six Pennsylvania dioceses was complicit in covering it up.

Since then, Shapiro has been sought out by attorneys general in more than 40 other states seeking advice on how they might conduct similar probes. A dozen have already announced publicly that they are pursuing investigations.

There may be others. In Maryland, for instance, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) won’t confirm or deny whether an inquiry is underway. But shortly after the Pennsylvania report came out, his office put this notice on its website: “If you were a victim of an abuser associated with a school or place of worship, or you have knowledge of such abuse, please provide the information you want to share about it in the link below.”

Shapiro — who is a graduate of Jesuit-run Georgetown Law School — says what his investigation exposed in the Catholic Church was nothing short of “a national criminal enterprise. It was not just limited to Pennsylvania.”

But few of the other attorneys general have anything close to the kind of sweeping power that Pennsylvania law grants Shapiro, starting with his ability to convene a statewide investigative grand jury for this kind of undertaking.

And it remains a big question whether the church itself will cooperate or obstruct. The bishops in most states have been expressing their willingness to assist in the investigations, but those assurances do not count for much, unless the church opens its records to a truly independent review.

Shapiro’s own experience suggests that the church’s promises to cooperate should not be taken at face value. Last year, even as Pennsylvania bishops were making public statements supporting the inquiry, two of the six dioceses under investigation filed motions — initially kept under seal — that sought to block the statewide grand jury, claiming that local law enforcement should have jurisdiction.

Supervising Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III properly dismissed the church’s argument, saying it ran “counter to logic and would potentially permit criminal activity to go uninvestigated and unpunished.”

The legal wrangling has continued even after the release of the grand jury report. On Sept. 26, the state Supreme Court heard arguments over whether those whose names were redacted from the 1,400-page interim report should continue to have their identities protected.

The attorney general’s office is pressing to publicly name them in the final version of the report; the petitioners’ lawyers — who will not confirm the obvious, which is that their clients are clergy, or even how many of them there are — say the accused were not afforded due process.

If the church and its allies succeed in stifling the report, it could be a first step toward curbing the attorney general’s powers under the state’s muscular grand jury law.

“What is really at stake here is less about the identity of these petitioners and more about curtailing the grand jury act and protecting powerful institutions like the Catholic Church,” the attorney general added.

Meanwhile, the political dynamic around the issue of sexual abuse is rapidly shifting. On Sept. 25, the Pennsylvania House voted to accept the grand jury recommendation to ease the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases.

By a lopsided 173-21, it approved a measure that would allow victims of sexual abuse older than 30 a two-year window in which to sue, regardless of how long ago the offense occurred. The measure, however, faces more resistance in the Senate, and church leaders are lobbying against it.

Shapiro is optimistic. “Times are different. This report is commanding lawmakers’ attention, and unlike nearly every other issue, there does not seem to be a shred of partisanship to this,” he said.

Pennsylvania has led the rest of the country onto this very long road, and it remains worth watching, as it navigates what no doubt will be many bumps along the way. An institution corrupted by its own power will not give up that power easily.

“This,” Shapiro predicted, “is going to go on for years and years and years.”


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