Will other states follow Pennsylvania on church abuse?
HARRISBURG – Attorneys general around the U.S. have been largely silent this week about any plans to conduct an investigation like Pennsylvania’s that uncovered widespread child sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses, although New York’s top prosecutor is an exception, saying she is exploring teaming up with the local district attorneys.
The comments by the New York attorney general’s office Friday come on the heels of a sweeping grand jury report that also accused a succession of bishops and other church leaders of helping to keep quiet allegations against 300 “predator priests” who had victimized more than 1,000 children.
Attorney General Barbara Underwood has directed her criminal division to reach out to local district attorneys to see if they can “establish a partnership on this issue,” her spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick, said in statement. “Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well.”
In New York, the attorney general, unlike district attorneys, doesn’t have the power to convene grand juries to investigate such abuses. Two, in Westchester and Suffolk counties, already have.
Meanwhile, many state attorneys general have a narrow scope of investigative authority, unless a local prosecutor refers a case to them. That’s ultimately how Pennsylvania’s grand jury investigation began.
In 2013, a diocese’s settlement with 11 men who accused a Franciscan friar of sexually abusing them at a Catholic high school in northeast Ohio more than two decades earlier stoked complaints that the friar had abused boys at a Pennsylvania school in the late 1990s.
The friar, Stephen Baker, 62, killed himself shortly afterward, but the district attorney in Cambria County began investigating the matter before referring it to the state attorney general’s office.
In 2016, a state grand jury reported that two former bishops in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese had helped cover up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 clergy members over a 40-year period.
A flood of calls to a hotline for victims set up by the state attorney general’s office then prompted it to turn its attention to six other dioceses – Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton – under a new grand jury.
Philadelphia’s archdiocese already had been investigated twice by the city’s district attorney, meaning that every diocese in Pennsylvania has been investigated.
The grand jury’s roughly 900-page report released Tuesday is now seen as the most exhaustive investigation of the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church by any state.
Before this investigation, there had been nine investigative reports by a prosecutor or grand jury on a Catholic diocese or archdiocese in the U.S., according to the Massachusetts-based research and advocacy organization BishopAccountability.org.
Maine investigated its only diocese, releasing a report in 2004, and New Hampshire investigated its only diocese, coming to a 2002 settlement that involved the diocese enacting strict new child protection policies.
Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said Pennsylvania’s landmark investigation will put pressure on prosecutors elsewhere to take a look at what’s going on in their area dioceses.
The investigation also prompted the dioceses to publish lists, for the first time, of priests accused of sexual misconduct. On Friday, an Indiana bishop, Kevin Rhoades, of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, said he will publicly release the names of all the priests in his Catholic diocese who’ve been removed from the ministry following “credible” allegations they sexually abused children.
Rhoades was the bishop of Harrisburg from 2004 to 2009.
The Vatican has expressed “shame and sorrow” over the scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report, calling the child abuse “criminally and morally reprehensible” and saying Pope Francis wants to eradicate “this tragic horror.”
— Associated Press writers Tom Hays in New York, Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire, and David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.