Plenty of people read through the grand-jury report in Pennsylvania about sexual abuse and cover-up in the state’s Catholic Church dioceses. It didn’t escape the notice of the Department of Justice, either. In an unprecedented move, a wave of federal subpoenas hit all but one of the dioceses in Pennsylvania yesterday, as well as another in Buffalo, New York:
Federal prosecutors have opened an investigation of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
After the bombshell grand-jury report, most expected other state attorneys general to follow through with investigations of their own, and for Pennsylvania to issue some indictments. Some states have already announced investigations, but those may end up getting overshadowed if the DoJ bigfoots them.
That’s still an if. Thus far, only the US Attorneys for Philadelphia and Buffalo have issued subpoenas — for now. Crux reports that there are no indications of a nationwide probe, but that may change if other states uncover similar behavior or if the subpoenas turn up that evidence on their own. One obvious issue is whether leaders within the church crossed state lines to conspire to cover up crimes, which is why the subpoena to the Buffalo diocese is big news. CBS suggests it might be worse — that children themselves were shuffled across state lines:
For the first time ever, the Justice Department has opened an investigation into child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Seven of the eight Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania said Thursday they had received subpoenas. CBS News has learned the U.S. attorney in Buffalo, New York, has also served the diocese there. The focus involves alleged trafficking of minors across state lines for the purpose of sex abuse.
The news of the first federal probe into sex abuse in the church comes the day after an “Eye on America” report on the “CBS Evening News” in which two victims confronted the priest they say abused them when they were children.
The trafficking-of-minors angle seems less likely to be the issue than the transfer of known abusers into other states. If both are true, then … watch out. A federal probe could put the Catholic Church in danger of falling under RICO statutes to apply the charges to a wide number of leaders. That would create a legal and political nightmare for both sides, but it’s certainly one potential way in which the feds could press the Catholic Church for a long-belated full accounting of its actions over the last several decades with abusive priests and bishops.
Meanwhile, the news gets worse for the Vatican. Earlier today, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano issued a third “testimony” arguing further that a cover-up took place with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Vigano also attacks the “scourge of homosexuality” in the abuse crisis:
In a new and now third public letter, a former Vatican envoy to the United States said the Vatican’s top official for overseeing bishops confirmed many of his accusations of negligence in the handling of an infamous ex-cardinal charged with sexual abuse and once again pointed to homosexuality as the cause of the abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church. …
Regarding Ouellet’s observation that it would have been impossible for Francis to properly assess the information given to him on McCarrick while he was meeting numerous nuncios, Viganò stated that the question was fully addressed in private when he told the pope that the ex-cardinal had “sexually corrupted his own seminarians and priests.”
“No pope could forget that,” he added.
Vigano called homosexuality “a plague in the clergy”:
Finally, the letter points to “two dramatic silences,” the first being the plight of victims and the second being “the corrupting influence of homosexuality in the priesthood.”
“This is a crisis due to the scourge of homosexuality, in its agents, in its motives, in its resistance to reform,” he wrote. “It is no exaggeration to say that homosexuality has become a plague in the clergy, and it can only be eradicated with spiritual weapons.”
Vigano shot another broadside at Pope Francis as well. He explicitly accuses Pope Francis of having “either colluded in this corruption” or being “gravely negligent in failing to oppose it and uproot it.” That crisis may well come to a head first in Rome than the legal crisis here in the US.