ERIE, Pa. — The Justice Department has opened an investigation into Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania accused of covering up sex abuse for decades, a significant escalation in scrutiny of the church.
The inquiry is believed to be the first statewide investigation by the federal government of the church’s sex abuse problems. And it comes two months after the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office released an explosive grand jury report charging that bishops and other church leaders had covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 people over a period of more than 70 years.
Seven of the eight dioceses in the state, Philadelphia, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Allentown all said they had received federal grand jury subpoenas from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania requesting documents. The eighth, Altoona-Johnstown, did not respond to a request for comment.
“This subpoena is no surprise considering the horrific misconduct detailed in the statewide grand jury report,” said the Diocese of Greensburg in a statement. “Survivors, parishioners and the public want to see proof that every diocese has taken sweeping, decisive and impactful action to make children safer.”
News of the subpoenas threatened to deepen the crisis faced by the Catholic Church as it struggles through a new chapter of the sex abuse scandal, which emerged out of Boston more than 15 years ago. The Pennsylvania report followed the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, who is accused of sexually abusing seminarians and minors.
Since then, the fallout has continued. Last week, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who was described in the Pennsylvania report as mishandling sex abuse allegations against priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.
One issue, experts say, is that there has been no comprehensive and independent measurement of the full scope of sex abuse in the church in the United States. Until the Pennsylvania report, investigations by grand juries and attorneys general only looked at single dioceses or counties.
“I hope that this encourages church leaders at every level, and in every locale, to voluntarily open their files on all priests who have been credibly accused in past decades,” said The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America Magazine. “It’s also important to note that, today, any credibly accused priest is immediately removed from ministry. But before the truth can set us free, it must first be revealed.”
On Wednesday, a former priest in the Diocese of Erie, who was named in the report, pleaded guilty in state court to felonies for the repeated sexual assault of an altar boy and the attempted assault of another boy.
The scope of the Justice Department’s investigation is unclear, including whether it could cover other states in the country. A spokesman for the archdiocese of Chicago said Thursday that it had not received a subpoena from the Department of Justice, and a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Washington said it had no knowledge of the investigation. The subpoenas were first reported by The Associated Press.
The A.P. reported that the subpoenas, which sought testimony as well as records, were aimed at finding any evidence of federal crimes, including whether sexual predators were reassigned, people were instructed not to contact police or any children were taken across state lines for illicit purposes.
Since the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the attorneys general in at least a dozen other states, including New York, New Jersey and Florida, have said they will investigate possible sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. A number of states have already set up tip lines, and others have appointed special task forces with subpoena power.
The New York State attorney general has issued subpoenas to all eight dioceses in the state, in the first statewide investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The attorney general, Barbara Underwood, has said she was inspired by the Pennsylvania report.
The fact that the Justice Department is stepping into all of this is interesting in several respects. First, it is a step that has not been taken until now notwithstanding the fact that we’ve known for some time that many of the allegations regarding abuse by Priests included cases where children were brought across state lines by one of these predators and abused during the trip. Additionally, there have been several cases where Priests were reassigned to Parishes and Diocese in other states as part of the effort to cover up the crimes these Priests had committed. These facts alone would potentially give the Federal Government jurisdiction in these cases based on the fact that state lines were crossed for the purposes of committing a crime. Additionally, it’s possible that other Federal laws, such as those against child pornography were either violated or covered up during the course of one or more of these investigations. Whatever the reason, the mere fact of the Justice Department becoming part of these investigations certainly places renewed pressure on the Church and raises the possibility of new criminal charges against Priests and Church officials who, until now, have gotten off scot-free. Maybe now those in positions of power in the Church here in the United States and in Vatican City will realize just how much trouble they’re in.