The U.S. Justice Department, which last month launched a federal probe into clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church, has sent a sweeping call to Catholic dioceses across the country to preserve documents related to abuse.
The Catholic news site whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com Friday posted an Oct. 9 letter to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noting that the Justice Department “is investigating possible violations of federal law.” It requested to DiNardo that the nearly 200 U.S. dioceses “not destroy, discard, dispose of, delete or alter” documents related to its probe.
Rocco Palmo, the author of the site, only published the first page of the letter to DiNardo from William McSwain, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, so details of what McSwain is seeking weren’t detailed. However, Palmo wrote in his Friday post that he has the full document and it references “a host of records pertaining to personnel in general, and abuse — and its related claims — in particular.”
The report comes a few weeks after the Justice Department confirmed it is investigating alleged sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy across the state of Pennsylvania — a major escalation of government scrutiny of the church long sought by victims of pedophile priests. The list of state attorneys general announcing investigations grew last week to 13, plus Washington, D.C.
Earlier this year, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City reported that it has received “credible allegations” of sexual abuse involving 16 priests during the past three decades. Two of those allegations were received this year.
The federal and state investigations were sparked by a scathing report from a Pennsylvania grand jury in August that found more than 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused about 1,000 children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up.
Palmo told The Washington Post that the letter is asking all U.S. dioceses to preserve all documents pertaining to personnel and abuse — not only those pertaining to the Pennsylvania dioceses being investigated.
Such a preservation request does not decisively mean that federal prosecutors will ultimately seek or review documents from dioceses outside Pennsylvania, but it does mean that bishops around the country are now on notice not to destroy any such records, because federal prosecutors could seek them at a later date.
A person familiar with the Pennsylvania investigation told The Post last month that federal subpoenas seek records including 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.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Ann Burke, who led the bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People in the early 2000s, said Wednesday that the request to retain documents appears to “mean they’re looking at a larger criminal enterprise.”
Burke said she believes the Justice Department may be looking at whether the Bishops’ Conference itself is a criminal enterprise. The conference oversaw the creation of a charter, or set of procedures, in 2002 to address allegations of sexual abuse by clergy of young people.
The bishops’ conference declined to comment in detail, issuing only a statement from its general counsel, Anthony Picarello. “We have transmitted the U.S. attorney’s letter at his request and in the spirit of cooperation with law enforcement.”
The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.