Thursday, September 6, 2018

5 States Are Investigating Sex Abuse in Catholic Church

5 States Are Investigating Potential Cover-Ups of Sex Abuse in Catholic Dioceses

By Sharon Otterman
Sept. 6, 2018

Newly emboldened attorneys general across the United States have begun to take an aggressive stance toward investigating sex abuse by Catholic clergy, examining whether church officials covered up malfeasance, issuing subpoenas for documents and convening special task forces.

On Thursday alone, the New York State attorney general issued subpoenas to all eight Roman Catholic dioceses in the state as part of a sweeping civil investigation into whether institutions covered up allegations of sexual abuse of children, officials said. The attorney general in New Jersey announced a similar investigation.

The new inquiries come several weeks after an explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed the abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests over decades. With Catholics clamoring for more transparency from their church, demanding that their bishops release the names of accused priests, civil authorities are beginning to step up to force disclosure.

In the three weeks since the release of the Pennsylvania report, the attorneys general of Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska have also announced that they intend to investigate sex abuse by Catholic priests in their states and have asked local dioceses for records. Most bishops have been saying they will cooperate.

Editor's note:  Will Connecticut follow as well?

The new approach by the authorities increases the pressure on Pope Francis, who is weathering a crisis related to sexual abuse by clergy globally, from the United States to Honduras to Chile to Australia.

A former Vatican diplomat to the United States, Carlo Maria ViganĂ², issued an 11-page letter in August calling on Pope Francis to resign for failing to sanction Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick for his abuses against adult seminarians. Cardinal McCarrick was one of America’s most prominent cardinals before he resigned from the College of Cardinals in July over abuse allegations.

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[Read the claims that led Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick to resign.]

Attorneys general said in statements Thursday that they were inspired to take action by the scathing Pennsylvania report, which led to several abuse convictions, and were seeking to bring similar transparency and justice to constituents in their states.

“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover-ups in the dioceses,” the attorney general of New York, Barbara Underwood, said in a statement. “Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well — and we are going to do everything in our power to bring them the justice they deserve.”

Ms. Underwood also said her office’s criminal division wanted to work with local district attorneys to prosecute any individuals who have committed criminal offenses that fall within the applicable statutes of limitations. In New York State, the attorney general’s office cannot convene a grand jury, so it must work in concert with local district attorneys.


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New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, announced Thursday that he had appointed Robert D. Laurino, the former acting prosecutor of Essex County, to lead a task force that will investigate clergy sex abuse and any effort to cover up claims of assault. The task force, which will have subpoena power through a grand jury in order to compel testimony and demand the production of documents.

“I was deeply troubled to read the allegations contained in last month’s Pennsylvania grand jury report,” Mr. Grewal said in a statement. “We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here. If it did, we will take action against those responsible.”

Both states have set up dedicated hotlines for victims and witnesses to report information related to allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

Church officials are signaling that they will comply with subpoenas and requests for documents. In New York, Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said that all of the dioceses in the state would cooperate with the subpoenas.

“It is not a surprise to us that the attorney general would look to begin a civil investigation, and she will find the Archdiocese of New York, and the other seven dioceses in the state, ready and eager to work together with her in the investigation,” he said.

Ms. Underwood’s action represents the first statewide investigation of sexual abuse and potential cover-up by the Catholic Church in New York. Several district attorney’s offices in the state have investigated abuses within single dioceses, but those investigations took place more than a decade ago.

The subpoenas were issued on Thursday by the Charities Division of the attorney general’s office, which has the authority to oversee nonprofits, including religious institutions. They cover all documents related to sexual abuse and the church’s response to that abuse over decades, including information from secret or confidential church archives, a person close to the investigation said, requesting anonymity because the information is related to a continuing investigation.


Because of New York State’s highly restrictive statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes, many of the potential abuses that may be uncovered will not be able to be prosecuted. Under current law in New York, victims only have until age 23 to file civil cases or seek criminal charges for most types of child sexual abuse. Some of the most serious child sex crimes, such as rape, have no time limit on the bringing of criminal charges, but only for conduct that occurred in 2001 or later.

A bill that would amend the statute of limitations to allow more victims to seek justice has failed to pass the state Legislature for years.

On Thursday, Ms. Underwood urged the Legislature to pass the bill, known as Child Victims Act, which would allow all victims to file civil suits until age 50 and seek criminal charges until age 28.

But she also urged any victim of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, or anyone who knows about abuse, to participate in its investigation, “even if they believe that their information may be outside the statute of limitations for a court case.”

“All victim information will be helpful to understanding and reforming the institutional approach of the church, regardless of whether an individual case can be prosecuted,” she said. Victims and anyone with information about abuse can call the hotline at 800-771-7755 or file a complaint online at In New Jersey, the number to report allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy is (855) 363-6548.

Abuse victims and their advocates have accused New York’s bishops for years of covering up the extent of clergy abuse, contending that the church has taken advantage of the state’s restrictive statute of limitations.

In the Archdiocese of New York, the number of abusive priests who have been named publicly is 83, according to a database kept by, a victims’ advocacy group. In contrast, the Archdiocese of Boston, which has fewer Catholics and priests but was the target of an investigation by the state’s attorney general in 2003, has reported 261 priests accused of abuse.


Terence McKiernan, president of, said in a statement on Thursday, “Little is known about clergy abuse of children in New York, because of the state’s antiquated and predator-friendly statute of limitations, and because the church has kept the evidence secret all these years.”

“Finally we will learn the truth in New York,” he added.

Laurie Goodstein and Nikita Stewart contributed reporting.

Follow Sharon Otterman on Twitter: @sharonNYT

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