How far will the new Department of Justice investigation go?
State involvement in the ongoing clerical abuse crisis in the American Church will continue to escalate now that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has served subpoenas to a number of dioceses in Pennsylvania. The dioceses were the focus of the recent grand jury report alleging that 300 predatory priests resided in that state. Catholic News Agency’s Ed Condon reported that earlier this month “chanceries across the Commonwealth [of Pennsylvania] were served with requests for documentation and files”. The charges are more extensive than sexual assault. They include trafficking minors and illegal pornography, both of which are federal crimes.
This follows similar investigations being conducted on the state level. In early September, New York’s attorney general issued a subpoena for every single diocese in the state, and New Jersey announced that it was forming a criminal task force to investigate clerical abusers. Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, and Missouri have also decided to launch investigations.
Certainly, none of them appear at first to be targeting the Church itself. To put it in laymen’s terms, they’re going after the employees and not the company. An anonymous official told Condon: “Maybe there is more to come, but it looks like they are beginning by looking for actual acts of abuse of minors and not yet on the institutional side of things – at least so far.” This no doubt makes Church authorities more likely to share information. A spokesman for the Diocese of Scranton vowed to “completely cooperate” with the DOJ’s investigation.
But the escalation from a state investigation to a federal one is significant. This may no longer be a matter of particularly ambitious attorneys general making inquiries into particularly negligent dioceses. The DOJ may decide that the findings are so serious in Pennsylvania that it warrants a broader intervention. They could feasibly search the entire American Church state by state.
While they say they’re willing to work with prosecutors, Church leaders are also frantically attempting to prove their ability to deal with the scandal on their own. Last month Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York announced that he was appointing a former federal judge to review his archdiocese’s protocols relating to sexual abuse.
On October 10, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston called on the Holy See to investigate the Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, a former auxiliary bishop under his predecessor, the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. A reporter named Charlie Specht sent O’Malley a three-part investigation he conducted into Malone’s alleged mishandling of sexual misconduct claims made against priests in his diocese. O’Malley’s spokesman, Terrence Donilon, emailed Specht saying that “Cardinal O’Malley will send the documentation of your reports to the … Apostolic Nuncio to the United States” so that they can be “reviewed by the Church authorities who have oversight and jurisdiction for the action or inaction of diocesan leadership in Buffalo”. The next day, Cardinal O’Malley also announced that he was expanding his investigation into accusations of homosexual activity and alcohol abuse at St John’s Seminary to include the other two seminaries in the archdiocese, in order “to meet the generally expected levels of transparency and accountability”.
It’s a striking contrast from the Boston of the early 2000s, when the archdiocese protected predator-priests and law enforcement was slow to react. Both Church and government officials clearly take such claims of abuse more seriously today. Whether they can work together effectively to prevent such abuses remains to be seen.