States consider investigations into Catholic Church abuse

Top law enforcement officials in states across the country are considering how to investigate potential abuse cases in the Catholic Church after a bombshell report from a Pennsylvania grand jury found more than a thousand victims and hundreds of predatory priests over the course of six decades.

Only a handful of attorneys general have taken public steps toward some form of investigation, but survivors of sexual abuse by priests say the investigation by the Pennsylvania grand jury should represent only the beginning of the process. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“Pennsylvania and the attorney general there had the courage to take on a very powerful institution,” said Tim Lennon, who heads the board of directors at the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Any time there’s been an investigation, we find similar kinds of systematic coverup, systematic moving around priests to hide.” 

Few states have as much power to compel church officials to cooperate or open their secret files as Pennsylvania, where state law allowed Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) to convene a grand jury to investigate. 

But attorneys general in some states have been working with local Catholic archbishops to wrench open tightly held archives.

In Missouri, the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Diocese of Kansas City have agreed to voluntarily open church records to investigators from Attorney General Josh Hawley’s (R) office. Hawley told The Hill he had asked for similar access to secret archives held by Catholic dioceses based in Jefferson City and Springfield.

“We’re hopeful that each of them will” allow access, Hawley said in an interview. “If they don’t, we will certainly let the public know that too.”

Hawley, who is running for Senate, has appointed a veteran sex crimes prosecutor to head up the investigation. He said the probe “is fast moving,” but he cautioned the Pennsylvania report took almost two years to investigate and write. Hawley said his office would eventually issue a public report detailing its findings.

In neighboring Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) will meet with the Chicago Archdiocese in the coming days to investigate priests identified in the Pennsylvania report who had been dispatched to Illinois following accusations of abuse. 

Dioceses in Joliet and Rockford both said they would cooperate with Madigan’s investigation.

Lennon said the cooperative approach is a start, though previous investigations have shown that voluntary partnerships still allow church officials to hide documents.

“We need something independent and outside. So the gesture of the attorney general of Missouri is good, he wants to investigate, but the gesture itself is insufficient without subpoena, testimony under oath and independence,” Lennon said. “I have no trust in partnerships without independent outside investigation where there’s subpoena power and testimony under oath. Anything else is just a whitewash.”

The power of individual attorneys general varies widely throughout the country, and Congress has shown little interest in getting involved, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill have remained largely silent on the matter in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Only about a dozen states, Pennsylvania among them, give their attorney general the authority to convene a grand jury to issue subpoenas. Attorneys general in Illinois and California have the authority to issue subpoenas directly, without a grand jury. 

“Some [attorneys general] have direct power to issue subpoenas in criminal manners. Others have to rely on a grand jury that has to be called by them or called by local prosecutors. And some don’t have any power at all,” said Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University who studies attorneys general. 

Nolette said that even in states where the attorney general lacks the power to convene grand juries or issue subpoenas, law enforcement officials can get creative.

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood (D) has contacted district attorneys in her state to begin an investigation into potential abuse. New York law allows local district attorneys to convene grand juries to investigate potential crimes.

“The horrific findings in Pennsylvania show the need for a similar investigation in New York State. We owe it to past victims and current victims to fully investigate sexual abuse crimes,” said Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who heads the District Attorneys Association of New York. He said he had urged his fellow district attorneys to work with Underwood’s office to convene grand juries when necessary.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear’s (D) office has been in contact with Shapiro’s office in Pennsylvania, said Michael Brown, Beshear’s deputy. Brown said Beshear’s office is “looking to see what statutory tools we might have to address any similar issues.”

Many states vest investigative power only in local or county-level sheriff and police offices. Those offices can invite an attorney general to act as a special prosecutor, though that usually only happens when a local office has a perception of bias or some other conflict. 

Attorneys general in South Carolina and Nebraska have said their offices lack the authority to investigate potential abuse claims within the Catholic Church. In Idaho, the attorney general can only get involved if they are asked to do so by a local sheriff or police force.

While only a few states have mounted investigations so far, others may not be far behind.

“To protect its integrity, we can’t comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation,” said Bethany Lesser, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraTop California regulator: Emissions rule change 'blows a hole' in air pollution standards Industry wins big in methane rules rollback Overnight Energy: Watchdog to investigate EPA over Hurricane Harvey | Panel asks GAO to expand probe into sexual harassment in science | States sue over methane rules rollback MORE (D).

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) said her state’s 20 elected state attorneys have jurisdiction over any potential investigation within their districts. Bondi’s office is reaching out to those local elected officials to explore a potential investigation.