- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Justice Department has opened an investigation into decades of alleged sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, the first time victim advocates say federal prosecutors have conducted a major examination into the nationwide scandal.

Federal prosecutors subpoenaed all eight Catholic dioceses in the state seeking years of documents for crimes ranging from child pornography possession to transporting children across state lines and reassigning predator priests to other states to conceal their conduct, said a source with knowledge of the investigation.

A Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August found that more than 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades. It also found that church leaders — including Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who led the Pittsburgh Diocese for almost 20 years and whose resignation Pope Francis accepted last week — had covered up for offenders.

“This is an enormous development, and it is high time,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of Child USA, an advocacy group dedicated to keeping children safe from sexual abuse. “The federal government has been silent on clergy sex abuse for 20 years. It was time for them to step up and do something.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia issued the subpoenas this month, the source said.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said she could not “confirm, deny or otherwise comment on the existence or nonexistence of an investigation.”

Several dioceses in Pennsylvania confirmed the existence of a federal investigation. The dioceses of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Allentown, Harrisburg and Greensburg all issued statements saying they had received subpoenas and intended to cooperate with federal investigators.

“The diocese will cooperate fully with the request, just as it cooperated fully with the information requests related to the statewide grand jury,” said Matthew Kerr, a spokesman for the Diocese of Allentown. “The diocese sees itself as a partner with law enforcement in its goal to eliminate the abuse of minors where it may occur.”

The federal probe comes on the heels of the 18-month investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro that led to the grand jury report. The report identified more than 1,000 child sexual abuse victims, but the grand jury concluded that there were likely thousands more.

At the time, Mr. Shapiro said Pennsylvania could not pursue state charges because the statute of limitations had passed in many cases and he was able to prosecute only two priests. One of those priests pleaded guilty this week.

“The abuse scarred every diocese,” Mr. Shapiro said after the report was released in August. “The cover-up was sophisticated. The church protected the institution at all costs.”

The Justice Department largely shied away from the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal as local prosecutors took up the mantle using state laws. However, sexual abuse advocacy victims have been pushing for a federal investigation because abuse in the church became a national scandal when it was discovered in Boston in 2002.

Last month, two of those advocacy groups — the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the Center for Constitutional Rights — sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein demanding federal action.

Violations of federal law could create an opening for the Justice Department to investigate clergy and others for suspected criminal conduct.

“We know for a fact that there have been plenty of priests in the state of Pennsylvania who have taken children across state lines to New Jersey and New York and the hierarchy knew about the transfer of these children,” Ms. Hamilton said. “State prosecutors don’t have jurisdiction over movements that occur across state lines; they only have jurisdictions within the state itself.”

Ms. Hamilton said the Justice Department’s interest in clergy sexual abuse may have been stoked by public anger to the Pennsylvania grand jury report and other disturbing news articles.

“The public is angry, and they want this to end,” she said. “This has emboldened the states’ attorneys general, and federal prosecutors are seeing the same thing. The public is ready and eager for something to be done that maybe wasn’t true 15 or 20 years ago.”

More than a dozen attorneys general have opened their own investigations in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Pennsylvania has become ground zero in the fight against sexual abuse. State officials have opened nine grand jury investigations into a variety of allegations, including some directed at Catholic dioceses, private schools and even its state university in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

State lawmakers have sought to extend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims, creating a two-year window for them to sue their abusers. The bill passed in the state House of Representatives but failed Wednesday in the Senate.

Ms. Hamilton said she believes the measure will ultimately pass.

Mary Leary, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Catholic University, said law enforcement needed to act because church leadership had failed to protect children for decades.

“There have been ample opportunities for leadership to put into place and execute necessary measures to prevent child sexual abuse, but it has been a mishandling at best and a cover-up at worst,” she said. “The fact that the Catholic Church is reflective of this new reality is not shocking; it’s just sad.”

Peter Isely, who was abused and is a spokesman for Ending Clergy Abuse, has been pushing for federal investigation for 15 years. He applauded the Justice Department’s actions but hopes more will be done.

“This should just be the first step,” he said. “It’s a good start because there is a feeling that even Catholics want this investigated and want people held responsible so the church can make changes it seems reluctant to make so there can be a post-abuse church.”

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