Justice Department Stepping In To Investigate Catholic Church Abuse Scandal

The Catholic Church's problems may have just gotten a lot more serious.

Based in no small part on the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report that uncovered thousands of child victims of sexual abuse by Catholic Priests that was covered up by Catholic authorities in power at the time, the Justice Department is opening its own investigation:

ERIE, Pa. — The Justice Department has opened an investigation into Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania accused of covering up sex abuse for decades, a significant escalation in scrutiny of the church.

The inquiry is believed to be the first statewide investigation by the federal government of the church’s sex abuse problems. And it comes two months after the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office released an explosive grand jury report charging that bishops and other church leaders had covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 people over a period of more than 70 years.

Seven of the eight dioceses in the state, Philadelphia, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Allentown all said they had received federal grand jury subpoenas from the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania requesting documents. The eighth, Altoona-Johnstown, did not respond to a request for comment.

“This subpoena is no surprise considering the horrific misconduct detailed in the statewide grand jury report,” said the Diocese of Greensburg in a statement. “Survivors, parishioners and the public want to see proof that every diocese has taken sweeping, decisive and impactful action to make children safer.”

News of the subpoenas threatened to deepen the crisis faced by the Catholic Church as it struggles through a new chapter of the sex abuse scandal, which emerged out of Boston more than 15 years ago. The Pennsylvania report followed the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, who is accused of sexually abusing seminarians and minors.

Since then, the fallout has continued. Last week, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who was described in the Pennsylvania report as mishandling sex abuse allegations against priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.

One issue, experts say, is that there has been no comprehensive and independent measurement of the full scope of sex abuse in the church in the United States. Until the Pennsylvania report, investigations by grand juries and attorneys general only looked at single dioceses or counties.

“I hope that this encourages church leaders at every level, and in every locale, to voluntarily open their files on all priests who have been credibly accused in past decades,” said The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America Magazine. “It’s also important to note that, today, any credibly accused priest is immediately removed from ministry. But before the truth can set us free, it must first be revealed.”

On Wednesday, a former priest in the Diocese of Erie, who was named in the report, pleaded guilty in state court to felonies for the repeated sexual assault of an altar boy and the attempted assault of another boy.

The scope of the Justice Department’s investigation is unclear, including whether it could cover other states in the country. A spokesman for the archdiocese of Chicago said Thursday that it had not received a subpoena from the Department of Justice, and a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Washington said it had no knowledge of the investigation. The subpoenas were first reported by The Associated Press.

The A.P. reported that the subpoenas, which sought testimony as well as records, were aimed at finding any evidence of federal crimes, including whether sexual predators were reassigned, people were instructed not to contact police or any children were taken across state lines for illicit purposes.

Since the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the attorneys general in at least a dozen other states, including New York, New Jersey and Florida, have said they will investigate possible sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. A number of states have already set up tip lines, and others have appointed special task forces with subpoena power.

The New York State attorney general has issued subpoenas to all eight dioceses in the state, in the first statewide investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The attorney general, Barbara Underwood, has said she was inspired by the Pennsylvania report.

As noted above, the roots of all this lie in the report issued in August by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury regarding sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the state and the role that Church hierarchy played in covering up those reports by methods such as moving Priests from one Parish to another, or otherwise reassigning them to duties where they would be outside the jurisdiction of local authorities. After several years of investigation, the Grand Jury uncovered more than 300 instances of Priests involved in the abuse of as many as over 1,000 children over the years that the investigation covered. The report found cases of abuse that covered nearly all of the state’s diocese and included actions or omissions by several Bishops and other Church authorities. The most prominent name on that list was Donald Wuerl, who had been the Bishop of Pittsburgh before being promoted to become Archbishop in Washington, D.C. Wuerl was later elevated to Cardinal. Last week, after pressure from several quarters, Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation, although he remains in his position pending appointment of a successor. Additionally, the Grand Jury Report has led several other states to open up similar investigations into the Church’s actions and omissions in their sate, including several that could lead to the filing of criminal charges against Priests or Church officials due to the fact that the statute of limitations related to claims of child sex abuse have changed significantly in the years since these reports first started becoming public.

The fact that the Justice Department is stepping into all of this is interesting in several respects. First, it is a step that has not been taken until now notwithstanding the fact that we’ve known for some time that many of the allegations regarding abuse by Priests included cases where children were brought across state lines by one of these predators and abused during the trip. Additionally, there have been several cases where Priests were reassigned to Parishes and Diocese in other states as part of the effort to cover up the crimes these Priests had committed. These facts alone would potentially give the Federal Government jurisdiction in these cases based on the fact that state lines were crossed for the purposes of committing a crime. Additionally, it’s possible that other Federal laws, such as those against child pornography were either violated or covered up during the course of one or more of these investigations. Whatever the reason, the mere fact of the Justice Department becoming part of these investigations certainly places renewed pressure on the Church and raises the possibility of new criminal charges against Priests and Church officials who, until now, have gotten off scot-free. Maybe now those in positions of power in the Church here in the United States and in Vatican City will realize just how much trouble they’re in.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Religion, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael says:

    Rut roh.

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    Authoritarian religion gives you a clergy that recognizes no limits, and authoritarian parenting gives you victims who are afraid to speak out and aren’t listened to even when they do. American culture is infected deeply with both, which is why the problem has gotten so bad and continued for so long.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    I see no end in sight here. The Church is still presenting as a defense what is essentially a profoundly disturbing admission of guilt: that since it was “a different time” the hierarchy chose to handle heinous crimes internally rather than call in the police.

  4. Gustopher says:

    Genuine question for those who follow these things more closely — why is there so much focus on the Catholic Church?

    Is there something special about them, which makes child rape more prevalent? Do they keep better records? Is the Episcopal Child Rape scandal just waiting to explode onto the national scene? Lutherans? What’s-his-name with the teeth and the Punchable Face Church of Prosperity?

    Also, is it just my imagination, or does this same exact scandal erupt every five years for the Catholic Church?

  5. mike ference says:

    Scarface Scarnatti sold his soul to the devil via the Roman Coward Terrorist Cult. When the devil realized Scarface’s soul wasn;t worth anything; the devil gave his soul to the feds on a silver platter.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: To the degree that I understand the difference, it is that other denominational groups have whatever types of programs for young people there are centered in the laity rather than in the clergy. I don’t know if that really creates a distinction, but if it does it is because the laity are less likely to create systems where child abuse will flourish. But Evangelicals have had child abuse issues that I am aware of. The difference is that in the cases that I’ve been aware of, the police were invited in by the laity (usually the parents of the victim) filing criminal complaints. Pastors still seemed inclined to express “shock and dismay,” but willing inclined to “address the issues internally.”

  7. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: There may be a certain amount of problems in Jeremy to the Catholic Church, but I suspect that there are a lot more problems with other denominations than are documented. That’s the key. The Catholics have an extremely strong heirarchy with a 2000 year history of documenting every detail. In most denominations there is simply no structure in place to compile evidence of misdeeds.

  8. Kylopod says:

    @Gustopher: I think it’s because the Catholic Church is one of the largest and most powerful organizations on the planet. No other religious sect has anything comparable, not even the Eastern Orthodox. It’s always going to be a problem when you have an organization that’s hierarchical and authoritarian, and where there’s very little accountability when things go wrong. But the sheer size and power of the Catholic Church makes it a particular haven for corruption where it’s remarkably easy to cover things up.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    To the degree that I understand the difference, it is that other denominational groups have whatever types of programs for young people there are centered in the laity rather than in the clergy.

    In the past, yes, but in the current church most such programs are administered by the laity because there aren’t enough priests to go around and nuns are all but non-existent. As @Ben Wolf:

    Authoritarian religion gives you a clergy that recognizes no limits, and authoritarian parenting gives you victims who are afraid to speak out and aren’t listened to even when they do.

    very much mirrored my growing up in the church during the 60s and I suspect these tendencies are still prevalent in today’s church. I do wonder when these offenses occurred.

    Also, I wonder if anti-Catholic bias may be playing a part? Protestants are always distrustful of the papists and maybe looking for a way to bring them down a notch or 2? Just a thought, as an atheist I no longer have a dog in that fight so it may well be a thing mostly of the past.

  10. An Interested Party says:

    Is there something special about them, which makes child rape more prevalent?

    Clerical celibacy, perhaps…

  11. Tyrell says:

    The Justice Department may find the guarded walls of Vatican City very hard to get through.