New York attorney general issues subpoenas to every Catholic diocese in the state

(AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File) New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood.

The New York attorney general’s office has issued subpoenas to every Catholic diocese in the state, becoming the latest U.S. state to embark on an expansive investigation of sex crimes committed and covered up by Catholic priests.

The Catholic Church faces a major test over the next several months as the attorneys general of at least five states conduct investigations and several more consider opening up the decades-old secret files of the dioceses in their states. Millions of Catholics nationwide now must grapple with attending a church that is under criminal investigation.

After New York’s subpoenas were issued, and first reported by The Associated Press on Thursday, New Jersey quickly followed, announcing a criminal task force focused on investigating sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. New Mexico launched an investigation this week, and Nebraska and Missouri have inquiries underway.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro set off this wave when he announced last month the results of a massive grand jury investigation, alleged that more than 1,000 children were sexually abused by more than 300 priests in six of the state’s Catholic dioceses, over a period spanning more than 70 years. The report began a storm across the country, with many Catholic faithful demanding that their own dioceses open their files to criminal investigators to examine whether a similarly extensive cover-up took place. Shapiro said Thursday, “Our work in Pennsylvania has spurred a movement.”

Marci Hamilton, a professor of religion and law at the University of Pennsylvania who is an expert on child protection laws, said these state investigations signal a new phase in the U.S. government’s treatment of clergy abuse. While several other countries have had government-led national probes of child sexual abuse, in the United States, Pennsylvania’s is the very first statewide investigation.

Previously, Hamilton believed, U.S. politicians like attorneys general didn’t want to touch the church. “Since 2002, I’ve been waiting to hear three words: ‘Clergy sex abuse,’” she said Thursday. “It’s see no evil, hear no evil. They are terrified in this hyper-religious liberty environment of offending an organized religion like the Catholic Church.”

She believes state officials changed their minds when they saw Shapiro “did it with no political peril.”

Due to the statute of limitations on sex crimes, almost all the abuses documented by the Pennsylvania grand jury cannot lead to criminal prosecutions, and Underwood’s office warned that any victims who report abuse in New York might also find that the crimes are no longer prosecutable under state law.

A person familiar with the New York investigation told The Washington Post that the attorney general’s office sent civil subpoenas to the eight Catholic dioceses. The subpoenas are part of an ongoing civil investigation by the attorney general’s Charities Bureau, which is looking into whether the nonprofit dioceses covered up sexual abuse of minors.

Separately, the criminal division is working with district attorneys in the state who might convene grand juries to investigate crimes committed by priests. On Thursday, Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced a telephone hotline and an online forum for victims and witnesses of child abuse committed by clergy in the state of New York to contact investigators. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal also said that his office had set up a new telephone hotline for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and would investigate the allegations through its new criminal task force.

Many within the church have called for criminal investigations in recent weeks, in place of the church-run remedies that U.S. bishops have pursued since the Boston Globe exposed the clergy sex abuse scandal in 2002.

Michael Merz, a federal judge in Ohio who formerly led the National Review Board that the church set up to handle sexual abuse cases, said the government can investigate in a way that his board never could. He said the body didn’t investigate so much as audit how dioceses were handling the abuse cases that parishioners brought to the church. “That kind of auditing doesn’t do anything about stuff that’s never been reported, for example. This has the possibility of helping people who have never spoken out about their abuse do so,” Merz said.

He wondered about expending state resources on exhaustive investigations that lead to few if any criminal prosecutions, though. “There’s a serious question in my mind about the validity of an investigation by a grand jury that doesn’t result in indictments,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s clear from the press reports that the investigation in Pennsylvania was of great assistance to victims. . .. In my judgment, it’s valuable to get those accusations out there where people can read them.”

After the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, The Washington Post reached out to the attorneys general of the 49 other states to see if they had plans to launch similar inquiries or had investigations already underway. Many said they could not comment on potential investigations, while others said they lacked the authority to immediately act on local cases. Under state law in many states, the investigation needs to begin at the local level.

Missouri became the first state to launch an investigation in the wake of the Pennsylvania report, announcing last month that it would explore allegations of alleged abuses by clergy in the St. Louis area, which is home to more than half a million Catholics.

In New Mexico, Attorney General Hector Balderas sent letters to the bishops of the state’s dioceses on Tuesday, saying that the Pennsylvania report was “shaking the conscience of those throughout the world by detailing the vast extent of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and clerics and the shocking cover-up by church leaders.”

Balderas acknowledged that the statute of limitations would likely prevent many prosecutions but said that he is investigating “in the interest of long overdue transparency.” Calling the letter a “demand. . .in contemplation of litigation,” he asked the dioceses to turn over by Oct. 5 all documents relating to child sexual abuse allegations and to numerous specific priests.

In Nebraska, the state’s three dioceses said they had received an inquiry from the attorney general’s office requesting their files on the subject dating back to 1978. The dioceses of Lincoln and Grand Island said they would cooperate with the investigation; the archdiocese of Omaha did not immediately respond to The Post’s inquiry.

The results of such state probes could cause many U.S. Catholics to leave the church, as happened after a national probe in Ireland, where the Catholic Church was literally part of the government. Hamilton noted that Scotland’s government also ran a national probe, as did Germany, Sweden, Japan. A commission by the Australian government ran a years-long investigation that just ended this year.

“People are much less inclined to belong to institutions that are suspect,” Merz said. “There’s no doubt that a lot of people have left because of doubting the integrity of this particular institution.”

In the New York investigation, Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who leads one of the eight dioceses subpoenaed in the state, said Thursday that he had asked Albany’s district attorney to review the diocese’s records of handling sexual abuse cases. In a letter to parishioners on Thursday, Scharfenberger said his decision to contact law enforcement “is necessary and ultimately will result in much good, but ⅛is⅜ one that is likely to be difficult and incredibly challenging for us for the foreseeable future.”

“I believe a fully independent investigation, one coordinated by the District Attorney, is the only way forward,” Scharfenberger wrote. “So many people have questions about transparency and about the process. We need a thorough review of our records in order to objectively answer those questions. Our goal is to build trust, demonstrate transparency, and restore confidence that we mean what we say.”

In the archdiocese of New York, which includes most of New York City, spokesman Joseph Zwilling said that the archdiocese received the subpoena on Thursday. New York joined other dioceses across the state, and across the country, in professing to be “ready and eager” to comply with an investigation.

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman contributed to this report.