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Justice Department Begins Probe Into Sex Abuse By Priests In Pennsylvania

October 18, 2018 - 5:38 pm
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PHILADELPHIA (WCBS 880/KYW Newsradio/AP) -- The Justice Department has opened an investigation into child sex abuse by priests in Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors are using subpoenas to demand secret files and testimony from high-ranking leaders in what victims' advocates say is the first such probe ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department.

“This is a big deal – and long overdue, according to some advocates that we’ve talked to today. The U.S. Attorney out of Philadelphia issued these subpoenas, and specifically wants to know whether or not priests, bishops, seminarians, or anybody else involved with the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania committed federal crimes with this,” said CBS News Correspondent Bill Rehkopf. “Those advocates we talked to said, ‘Look, this is a long time in coming. We wish that the federal government would have gotten involved sooner.’ But this is certainly a landmark moment that they have now.”

The subpoenas, served last week, follow a scathing state grand jury report over the summer that found that 301 "predator priests" in Pennsylvania had molested more than 1,000 children over seven decades and that church leaders had covered up for the offenders.

“We just learned that the U.S. Attorney here in Philadelphia – although his office is not confirming it, those who have received subpoenas from his office have confirmed that they are being summoned to a federal grand jury, and they must produce documents relative to any clergy sex abuse stretching from 2001 all the way to the present,” KYW Newsradio reporter Mark Abrams told Steve Scott.

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Abrams said the archdioceses of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as the dioceses of Erie, Allentown, Harrisburg, Scranton, and Greensburg, have all confirmed they have received subpoenas. Only the Diocese of Johnstown-Altoona has not yet responded.

The intervention by the federal government opens a new front of legal peril for the Catholic church, given that investigations into sexual abuse by clergy members have historically been handled exclusively by state and local authorities.

There could be grounds for federal charges, and prosecutors are trying to determine whether there are.

“There could be a number of things – crossing state lines is something that comes to mind most immediately, but there may be some other things as well that rise to a federal crime,” Rehkopf said. “The thing that has frustrated everybody at the state level is statute of limitations that have run out on many, many of these cases, and so it remains to be seen whether or not there’s any recourse through the federal government to do this, and again, the way they’re couching this is they are just serving subpoenas right now to get involved to see if there were federal crimes.”

If there were federal crimes, there is a possibility that the case could be taken nationwide, Rehkopf said.

"It's groundbreaking if we're going to see one of the U.S. attorneys pursuing the Catholic cases," said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and chief executive of Child USA, a nonprofit think tank focused on preventing child abuse. "The federal government has so far been utterly silent on the Catholic cases."

"This subpoena is no surprise considering the horrific misconduct detailed in the statewide grand jury report," the Greensburg Diocese said 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. We see this as another opportunity for the Diocese of Greensburg to be transparent."

There was no indication the Justice Department is planning a more ambitious and expensive investigation of clergy abuse nationwide.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia, who issued the subpoenas, wants to know if priests, bishops, seminarians or others committed any federal crimes.

McSwain, appointed by President Donald Trump earlier this year, asked for certain church leaders to testify before a federal grand jury in Philadelphia, though it could be months before that happens because of the time it takes to review the requested documents.

McSwain also demanded bishops turn over any evidence that anyone in their ranks took children across state lines for illicit purposes; sent sexual images or messages via phone or computer; instructed anyone not to contact police; reassigned suspected predators; or used money or other assets as part of the scandal.

The subpoenas seek documents stored in "Secret Archives," ''Historical Archives" or "Confidential Files," and records related to the dioceses' organizational charts, finances, insurance coverage, clergy assignments and treatment of priests, according to the people who spoke to the AP.

A well-connected Philadelphia-based writer on the Vatican and Catholic Church affairs, Rocco Palmo, told KYW Newsradio that according to a source, the subpoenas went out in the past week to all eight dioceses in Pennsylvania. 

He wrote in his blog, Whispers in the Loggia, that the source told him the subpoenas request information from 2001 to the present. Palmo said church officials are being requested to appear in court next week.  

He noted this probe is significant because, sources told him, this may lead to a RICO investigation.

egal experts said that if federal prosecutors can show that church leaders systematically covered up for child-molesting priests in the past five years, dioceses could be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the federal law originally passed to bring down the Mafia.

"We normally affiliate that with organized crime, crime syndicate. As one official said to me, this is going to be hell for the church," said Palmo. "There are things that state-level, in terms of crime, wouldn't be actionable, that at the federal level could be."

A spokesperson for McSwain would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation to KYW Newsradio. A spokesman for the FBI would neither confirm nor deny as well. 

"I'm thrilled at hearing this information. We have the full weight and attention of the United States federal government investigating the Roman Catholic Church," said Shaun Dougherty, 48, of Johnstown, who told authorities he was molested by a priest as a boy in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

Two Eastern Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania — the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and the Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh — also acknowledged they are under investigation.

While the subpoenas hint as possible charges of sexual exploitation of minors and fraud, legal experts said that if federal prosecutors can show that church leaders systematically covered up for child-molesting priests in the past five years, dioceses could also be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the law originally passed to bring down the Mafia.

The nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury report found that church leaders had engaged in a systematic cover-up by shuffling accused priests around to different parishes and in some cases working to prevent police investigations. Because of the statute of limitations, however, only two priests were charged as a result of the investigation. Many other priests are dead.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who oversaw the state probe, declined to comment on the federal investigation.

In the wake of the report's release, Shapiro said at least a dozen states opened investigations of their own and more than 1,300 accusers contacted his office on a victims' hot line.

The report also led to the resignation last week of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington. He was accused of helping to protect some child-molesting priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. KYW Newsradio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)