Missouri AG lacks subpoena power in priest sex abuse inquiry. Can the governor help?

By Jason Hancock
Kansas City Star
October 28, 2018

A Catholic priest holds a rosary in his hand inside a church while praying.

David Clohessy, who recently stepped down as leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was sometimes seen in Kansas City through his work with the advocacy group. In this 2011 photo, Clohessy wiped a tear from his eye during a news conference in Kansas City.
Photo by Mike Ransdell

[with video]

Can the governor grant Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley subpoena power in his investigation into possible clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church?

Hawley’s office seemed to imply that was an option last week, which inspired abuse survivors on Wednesday to call on Gov. Mike Parson’s office to take action.

But the governor responded by saying his hands were tied without a local prosecutor requesting assistance. The Star asked Hawley’s office to clarify its position Thursday, but instead his spokeswoman re-sent the same prepared statement it released last week that kicked off the debate.

The back-and-forth and lack of clarity is disappointing, said David Clohessy, former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“It does feel like no one is being as aggressive here as they could be and should be if this is really about protecting kids,” Clohessy said.

Hawley’s office announced last month that it would investigate potential clergy sex abuse in Missouri.

But because his office doesn’t have criminal jurisdiction, it does not have the power to subpoena or to convene a grand jury. Therefore, the investigation is relying on the voluntary cooperation of all four of the Catholic dioceses in Missouri.

Members of SNAP, believing a voluntary investigation will prove inadequate, delivered a letter to Parson Wednesday imploring the governor to authorize Hawley to conduct a grand jury-style investigation into the issue.

The group was relying on the statement issued last week by Hawley’s chief of staff saying that “there are procedures through which a local prosecutor and/or the governor can initiate a process that would result in our office being appointed special prosecutor.”

Jim Layton, who served as Missouri’s solicitor general for more than 20 years, said only a court can appoint the attorney general as special prosecutor, thus granting the office the power to convene a grand jury, issue subpoenas and file criminal charges.

The governor can appoint the attorney general to assist local prosecutors in an investigation, Layton said. But under this scenario the attorney general would not gain subpoena power or other tools of criminal investigation. Those would remain in the hands of the local prosecutor.

And historically, Layton said, the governor has only exercised this authority at the request of a local prosecutor.

“I have never heard of an instance,” he said, “where the governor says ‘go help someone’ when that prosecutor didn’t first say ‘I want some help.’”

Hawley’s office has emphasized that all four of the Catholic dioceses in Missouri have agreed to independent reviews. But Clohessy said after decades of secrecy, it “boggles the mind” that anyone would expect the church to suddenly fully cooperate with an investigation.

Clohessy said if it will take local prosecutors getting involved in order to ensure the investigation is conducted properly, “Hawley or the governor could put out a public call to the 115 prosecutors in Missouri asking for them to lend a hand.”

Read more here:


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.