December 2018 Church & State | People & Events

The U.S. Justice Department in October announced that it is undertaking an investigation into accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania.

The Washington Post called the department’s decision to launch the probe “noteworthy,” pointing out that the federal government has been reluctant to wade into the long-simmering scandal.

According to The Post, the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia has issued a series of subpoenas to church officials. Reportedly, the subpoenas seek church records going back several years, including, as The Post reported “any evidence of church personnel taking children across state lines for purposes of sexual abuse, any evidence of personnel sending sexual material about children electronically and any evidence that church officials reassigned suspected predators or used church resources to further or conceal such conduct …”

Earlier this year, a grand jury in Pennsylvania issued a long, damning report on instances of sexual abuse by priests in six church dioceses. It found that about 300 priests had engaged in abuse over a period of seven decades. Victims were said to number more than 1,000. (An earlier reported detailed similar abuses in two other dioceses.)

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades,” asserted the grand jury report.

The Post reported that the decision to get involved in the case was made by Justice Department officials in Philadelphia, not Washington, D.C. Speculation holds that the probe may be focusing on allegations that some priests possessed child porn­ography or transported children across state lines for sexual purposes. Both would count as violations of federal law.

Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who advises survivors of clerical abuse, said the grand jury report “persuaded a lot of politicians that it’s politically safe to investigate the church. Thirteen states are investigating. The federal government is finally doing something. The federal government has been conspicuously absent from this discussion. I think the logjam is breaking by those in power to look deeply into this issue.”

In related news:

• Officials with the Virginia Attorney General’s office announced Oct. 24 that the state is joining others investigating allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring said he was motivated to act after events unfolded in Pennsylvania.

“Like so many Americans, I read the grand jury report on clergy abuse in the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, and I felt sick,” Herring said. “It made me sick to see the extent of the damage done, the efforts to cover it up, and the complicity and enabling that went on by powerful people who should have known better and should have done more to protect vulnerable children.”

• Legislators in Pennsylvania adjourned in October without passing a bill that would have made it easier for victims of clerical abuse to seek justice in the courts.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives had passed legislation eliminating the statute of limitations on child sexual-abuse offenses and extending the deadline for filing lawsuits in civil cases, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The state Senate, however, refused to accept the bill. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), proposed a measure that would have allowed victims of abuse to sue individual priests but not the church. Groups that advocate for victims condemned the proposal.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro blasted Scarnati’s proposal, saying it lets the church off the hook.   

“A priest earns about $25,000 a year and will have no ability to pay for the mental-health counseling and the drug and alcohol counseling, the services that these victims need,” Shapiro said. “The only entity that can help support these victims, ironically, is the institution that enabled the abuse, and they are exempt.”