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Federal government launches investigation into Pennsylvania dioceses

Attorney General Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania speaks at a news conference in the state Capitol after legislation to respond to a landmark grand jury report accusing hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing children over decades stalled in the Legislature, on Oct. 17, 2018, in Harrisburg, Pa. Shapiro is flanked by lawmakers and victims of child sexual abuse. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

(RNS) — The U.S. Department of Justice is launching a federal grand jury investigation into Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania just months after a state-level investigation unearthed decades of allegations of widespread child sexual abuse by hundreds of priests that impacted more than 1,000 children over several decades.

The Associated Press reported on the investigation on Thursday (Oct. 18), citing two anonymous sources within the Justice Department.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also confirmed to Religion News Service that it is aware of the inquiry and is cooperating with investigators — including handing over documents.

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has received a subpoena issued by a federal grand jury, which requires the production of certain documents,” Kenneth A. Gavin, the archdiocese’s chief communications officer, said in an email. “The Archdiocese will cooperate with the United States Department of Justice in this matter.”

The Diocese of Pittsburgh also confirmed the probe.

“The Diocese of Pittsburgh has received the subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice and will cooperate fully with any and all investigations of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Pennsylvania,” a representative said in an email.

The Department of Justice declined to comment, saying the agency generally does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.

The federal probe comes in the wake of a rash of state-level investigations into Catholic dioceses across the country after the scathing report issued by the Pennsylvania grand jury in August. At least 11 states, including New York and New Jersey, have now launched some form of inquiry into local dioceses regarding allegations of child sexual abuse, with many demanding access to internal church files said to contain documentation of decades of allegations.

Advocates for abuse victims, such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, have ramped up calls for a federal investigation in recent weeks.

RNS reached out to almost every Catholic diocese in America over the last two months to ask whether they would be willing to share internal documents with law enforcement voluntarily. Many of those that responded to RNS’ survey said their files were inspected by authorities in years past, either during an investigation or during bankruptcy proceedings, often as a result of a costly settlement of a child abuse case.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

6 Comments

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  • “RNS reached out to almost every Catholic diocese in America over the last two months to ask whether they would be willing to share internal documents with law enforcement voluntarily. Many of those that responded to RNS’ survey said their files were inspected by authorities in years past, either during an investigation or during bankruptcy proceedings, often as a result of a costly settlement of a child abuse case.”

    Yet, as the September 19 RNS article to which the preceding paragraph links states, “Jeff Anderson, who represented the St. Paul-Minneapolis victims, said attorneys like him have known of the existence of files on abuse allegations and have been ‘excavating them since the ’80s with limited success.’ Church officials can use bankruptcy proceedings ‘as a shield and a sword,’ he said, to halt ongoing litigation and keep documents from exposure.

    ‘Bankruptcy is a way for the church to control the information,’ SNAP’s Lennon said. ‘It’s not shared — it’s controlled by the church.'”

    Such data as anyone has about abuse cases within the Catholic church in the U.S. are only the data church officials have chosen to disclose — usually, under legal duress. Given the unwillingness of the bishops and of superiors of religious communities to be forthcoming about ALL the data — ever — I think it would be advisable to take with a huge grain of salt the claim of diocesan spokespersons that “their files were inspected in years past,” and that law enforcement officials know fully what is in those files. in all of those files….

    The snapshot we’ve been given of the abuse situation is a carefully controlled snapshot provided by the very people most invested in keeping the bulk of their data hidden from the public.

  • SNAP was hardly forthcoming with a snapshot until it was put under legal duress.

    The risk, of course, to your position is that it may turn up proof of the alleged homosexual clique with such prelates as Weakland and McCarrick who bent over backwards to protect abusers.

  • This is enormously good news.

    The SNAP people should be most pleased.

    After 5.5 years it’s undebateable that Pope Francis isn’t going to clear up anything.

    His defensive support of Wuerl is even more evidence.

    He’s not confident enough or smart enough to make his own calls. He’s become a puppet of some very radical forces in the Church.

    His own history in Argentina is now coming out and it’s not good.

  • The abuse and coverup scandals are worldwide and of long duration. Spanish journalist Pepe Rodriguez published two books of over 400 pages each on the matter — The Sex Life of the Clergy (La vida sexual del clero, Madrid, 1995) and Pederasty in the Catholic Church: Sexual Crimes of the Clergy Against Minos, a Drama Silenced and Covered Up by the Bishops (Pederastia en la Iglesia catolica: delitos sexuales del clero contra menores, un drama silenciado y encubierto por los obispos, Madrid, 2003). Of course the statistics vary from country ro country, but in Spain Rodriguez estimates that 60% of priests are sexually active, 26% have “touched” (Spanish term) minors, and 7% “committed serious sexual abuses of minors.” The two books are available from Amazon but, sadly for most US readers, and available only in Spanish.

  • Today’s “federal government” is not yesterday’s “federal government”. An DOJ investigation into a religious body today is probably not for purposes generally imagined by and for abuse victims. Stay tuned.

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