The New York attorney general’s office has issued subpoenas to every Catholic diocese in the state, becoming the latest U.S. state to embark on an expansive investigation of sex crimes committed and covered up by Catholic priests.
The Catholic Church faces a major test over the next several months, as the attorneys general of at least five states conduct investigations and several more consider opening up the decades-old secret files of the dioceses in their states. Millions of Catholics nationwide now must grapple with attending a church that is under criminal investigation.
After New York’s subpoenas were issued, and first reported by the Associated Press on Thursday, New Jersey quickly followed, announcing a criminal task force focused on investigating sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. New Mexico launched an investigation this week, and Nebraska and Missouri have inquiries underway.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro set off this wave when he announced last month the results of a massive grand jury investigation, alleged that more than 1,000 children were sexually abused by more than 300 priests in six of the state’s Catholic dioceses, over a period spanning more than 70 years. The report began a storm across the country, with many Catholic faithful demanding that their own dioceses open their files to criminal investigators to examine whether a similarly extensive cover-up took place. Shapiro said on Thursday, “Our work in Pennsylvania has spurred a movement.”
Marci Hamilton, a professor of religion and law at the University of Pennsylvania who is an expert on child protection laws, said these state investigations signal a totally new phase in the U.S. government’s treatment of clergy abuse. While several other countries have had government-led national probes of child sexual abuse, in the United States, Pennsylvania’s is the very first state-wide investigation.
Previously, Hamilton believed, U.S. politicians like attorneys general didn’t want to touch the church. “Since 2002, I’ve been waiting to hear three words: ‘Clergy sex abuse,’” she said Thursday. “It’s see no evil, hear no evil. They are terrified in this hyper-religious liberty environment of offending an organized religion like the Catholic Church.”
She thinks state officials changed their minds when they saw Shapiro “did it with no political peril.”
Due to the statute of limitations on sex crimes, almost all the abuses documented by the Pennsylvania grand jury cannot lead to criminal prosecutions, and Underwood’s office warned that any victims who report abuse in New York might also find that the crimes are no longer prosecutable under state law.
A person familiar with the New York investigation told The Washington Post that the attorney general’s office sent civil subpoenas to the eight Catholic dioceses. The subpoenas are part of an ongoing civil investigation by the attorney general’s Charities Bureau, which is looking into whether the nonprofit dioceses covered up sexual abuse of minors.
Separately, the criminal division is working with district attorneys in the state who might convene grand juries to investigate crimes committed by priests. On Thursday, Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced a telephone hotline and an online forum for victims and witnesses of child abuse committed by clergy in the state of New York to contact investigators. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal also said that his office had set up a new telephone hotline for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and would investigate the allegations through its new criminal task force.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein