Stirred by Sexual Abuse Report, States Take on Catholic Church
By Sharon Otterman
New York Times
September 6, 2018
|The New York State attorney general, Barbara Underwood, has launched an investigation into whether Roman Catholic institutions covered up allegations of sexual abuse of minors.|
Attorneys general across the United States are taking a newly aggressive stance in investigating sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy, opening investigations into malfeasance and issuing subpoenas for documents.
On Thursday alone, the New York State attorney general issued subpoenas to all eight Catholic dioceses in the state as part of a sweeping civil investigation into whether institutions covered up allegations of sexual abuse of children, officials said. The attorney general in New Jersey announced a criminal investigation.
The new inquiries come several weeks after an explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed the abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests over decades. With Catholics clamoring for more transparency from their church, demanding that bishops release the names of accused priests, civil authorities are beginning to step up to force disclosure.
In the three weeks since the release of the Pennsylvania report, the attorneys general of Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico have also said they will investigate sex abuse by Catholic priests in their states and have asked local dioceses for records. Most bishops have been saying they will cooperate.
The newly emboldened approach by the authorities intensifies the scrutiny on the Catholic Church at a time when Pope Francis is weathering a crisis related to abuse by priests and bishops across the globe, from the United States to Honduras to Chile to Australia.
A former Vatican diplomat to the United States, Carlo Maria Vigano, issued an 11-page letter in August calling on Pope Francis to resign and accusing him of rescinding sanctions on former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick for his abuse of adult seminarians. The former cardinal was one of America’s most prominent Catholic bishops before he resigned from the College of Cardinals in July over abuse allegations.
Attorneys general in some states said in statements Thursday that they were inspired to take action by the scathing Pennsylvania report, and said they were seeking to bring similar transparency to constituents in their states.
“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover-ups in the dioceses,” the attorney general of New York, Barbara Underwood, said. “Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well — and we are going to do everything in our power to bring them the justice they deserve.”
Ms. Underwood also said her office’s criminal division wanted to work with local district attorneys to prosecute any individuals who have committed criminal offenses that fall within the applicable statutes of limitations. In New York State, the attorney general’s office cannot convene a grand jury, so it must work in concert with local district attorneys.
New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, announced Thursday that he had appointed Robert D. Laurino, the former acting prosecutor of Essex County, to lead a task force that will investigate clergy sex abuse and any effort to cover up claims of assault. The task force will have subpoena power through a grand jury in order 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,” Mr. Grewal said in a statement. “We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here. If it did, we will take action against those responsible.”
Both states have set up dedicated hotlines for victims to report information related to allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
John LaValle, 61, recently sought compensation for abuse by his parish priest in the 1960s in the Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island, but he said he was turned away because the priest was a member of a religious order, not a diocesan priest.
Mr. LaValle said he would be willing to call the attorney general’s hotline to share his story again. “What the attorney general is doing is a welcome and important step in the overall healing process,” he said, “because it’s completely out of control, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Church officials are signaling that they will comply with subpoenas and requests for documents. In New York, Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said that all of the dioceses in the state would cooperate.
“It is not a surprise to us that the attorney general would look to begin a civil investigation, and she will find the Archdiocese of New York, and the other seven dioceses in the state, ready and eager to work together with her in the investigation,” he said.
|Catholic Church officials are signaling that they will comply with subpoenas and requests for documents about clergy sex abuse of children.|
But the probes announced in various states were not equally independent or combative. In Missouri, Attorney General Joshua D. Hawley said last month that he will conduct an “independent review” of files that the archbishop of St. Louis, Robert J. Carlson, had just volunteered to make available to review. The two men each released letters about the arrangement on the same day, after survivors of sexual abuse by priests had organized protests calling for an investigation.
Mr. Hawley, a Republican running for the United States Senate, said in a telephone news conference that his power is limited because under Missouri law, he cannot convene a grand jury or issue subpoenas for documents.
But a lawyer for abuse victims called his claim a “half truth.” The lawyer, Nicole Gorovsky, who previously served as a federal prosecutor and an assistant attorney general in Missouri, said that Mr. Hawley could convene local district attorneys in Missouri and coordinate their efforts, as he has done on other issues. Those local district attorneys could then issue subpoenas for far more documents than those voluntarily provided by the bishops.
“He’s allowing the perpetrator to run the investigation,” Ms. Gorovsky said in an interview. “It’s exactly backwards.”
Ms. Underwood’s action represents the first statewide investigation of sexual abuse and potential cover-up by the Catholic Church in New York. Several district attorney’s offices have investigated abuses within single dioceses, but those investigations took place more than a decade ago.
The subpoenas were issued on Thursday by the Charities Division of the attorney general’s office, which has the authority to oversee nonprofits, including religious institutions. They cover all documents related to sexual abuse and the church’s response to that abuse over decades, including information from secret or confidential church archives, a person close to the investigation said, requesting anonymity because the information is related to a continuing investigation.
New York State has a highly restrictive statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes. Under current law, victims only have until age 23 to file civil cases or seek criminal charges for most types of child sexual abuse. Some of the most serious child sex crimes, such as rape, have no time limit for bringing criminal charges, but only for conduct that occurred in 2001 or later.
A bill that would amend the statute of limitations to allow more victims to seek justice has for years failed to pass the state Legislature. On Thursday, Ms. Underwood urged the Legislature to pass the bill, known as the Child Victims Act, which would allow all victims to file civil suits until age 50 and seek criminal charges until age 28.
But she also urged any victim of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, or anyone who knows about abuse, to participate in her investigation, even if they believe that their information may be outside the statute of limitations for a court case.
“All victim information will be helpful to understanding and reforming the institutional approach of the church,” she said.
The potential scope of the investigations is huge. In the Archdiocese of New York alone, 315 victims of sex abuse by clergy have recently received compensation through an independent program sponsored by the church. In the Diocese of Brooklyn, some 250 victims have filed claims through a similar program. These programs did not offer compensation to victims abused by priests working for religious orders, so many more victims may reach out to report abuse through the hotline.
The Diocese of Buffalo has been swamped with abuse revelations in recent months. In February, a retired priest admitted to The Buffalo News that he had molested probably dozens of boys at multiple parishes from the late 1960s until the 1980s. Since then, abuse by other priests has also come to light, raising questions of why it was kept secret for so long.
There have been calls for the bishop of Buffalo, Richard J. Malone, to resign, but he has said he will not. In contrast, the bishop of Albany, Edward Scharfenberger, has taken a more proactive approach to the crisis, recently sending a letter to parishioners telling them that he had asked the Albany district attorney to review the diocese’s records on sex abuse allegations.
“In the spirit of transparency and in an effort to restore a sacred trust that has been broken again and again, I believe a fully independent investigation, one coordinated by the district attorney, is the only way forward,” he wrote in the letter.
Abuse victims and their advocates have accused New York’s bishops for years of covering up the extent of clergy abuse, contending that the church has taken advantage of the state’s restrictive statute of limitations.
In the New York archdiocese, for example, the number of abusive priests who have been named publicly is 83, according to a database kept by BishopAccountability.org, a victims’ advocacy group. In contrast, the Archdiocese of Boston, which has fewer Catholics and priests but was the target of an investigation by the state’s attorney general in 2003, has reported 261 priests accused of abuse.
“Little is known about clergy abuse of children in New York, because of the state’s antiquated and predator-friendly statute of limitations, and because the church has kept the evidence secret all these years,” Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said Thursday in a statement.
“Finally we will learn the truth in New York.”