The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as well as the dioceses of Scranton, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Erie, Allentown, and Pittsburgh, confirmed to several reporters on Thursday that they’d received federal subpoenas relating to documentary evidence of child sex abuse. It’s not yet clear whether the eighth diocese, Altoona-Johnstown, has also received a subpoena, as representatives there have not yet responded to reporters’ request for comment, according to the New York Times.
The new federal investigation represents one of the most significant attempts to address the scope and scale of the Catholic child sex abuse crisis at the national level. Historically, instances of clerical sex abuse have been handled internally, by the churches and dioceses themselves, or in some cases by state legal officials. A national investigation of this scope, however, is unprecedented, and appears to herald a new level of commitment on the part of federal law enforcement in seeking to hold churches and dioceses accountable for sexual abuse cases.
Some dioceses have publicly welcomed the investigation as an opportunity to reckon with the scope of historic abuse. In a statement, the Diocese of Greenberg said, “This subpoena is no surprise considering the horrific misconduct detailed in the statewide grand jury report. Survivors, parishioners and the public want to see proof that every diocese has taken sweeping, decisive and impactful action to make children safer.”
The investigation comes on the heels of an incendiary grand jury report released in August implicating at least 300 priests in the sexual abuse of at least 1,000 minors over the past few decades. Most of the cases cited in the report are alleged to have occurred in the 1970s and ’80s, placing them beyond the statute of limitations. Since the publication of that report, at least eight states have opened varying forms of state-level investigations into clerical sex abuse there, although efforts to replicate the scope of the Pennsylvania grand jury report have been stymied by a lack of consistency in states’ policies over who has the authority to convene an investigation, and how.
It’s unclear which documents are being subpoenaed, or what the legal ramifications could be, especially because many allegations fall outside the statute of limitations for pursuing criminal charges. A bill currently before the state legislature, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Scarnati (R), would allow victims of child sexual assault beyond the statute of limitations to sue their alleged attackers, but not the Catholic Church directly.
The Associated Press reports that any cases of cover-ups of sexual abuse — including payments made to victims and their families — occurring within the past five years could fall under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO: a law designed specifically to combat organized crime like the Mafia.
Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and frequent commentator on Catholic issues, expressed hope to the New York Times that the national probe would prompt churches to preemptively share their files with law enforcement. “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,” he said.