Earlier this summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed decades of sexual abuse allegations in six Catholic dioceses in the state. The report included thousands of child victims, over three hundred “predator priests,” and an “Appendix of Offenders” section that ran over 550 pages. And even after all that, the grand jury reiterated that, “while the list of priests is long, we don’t think we got them all.”

That may be the intent of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has opened an investigation of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. The DOJ has served subpoenas on seven of the state’s eight dioceses (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Erie, Greensburg, Allentown, and Harrisburg), demanding secret files and testimony from high-ranking leaders. The federal investigation into the Catholic Church could be the first of its kind.

First-Time Federal Investigation

“This is the first time I have ever heard of a federal investigation into child sexual abuse in a Catholic diocese or church,” according to Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who played a major role in uncovering the abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese over a decade ago. “This is a monumental moment for clergy sexual victims everywhere.”

The subpoenas, issued by President Trump-appointee U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia, allegedly seek documents stored in “Secret Archives,” ”Historical Archives,” or “Confidential Files.” The DOJ is looking for records related to the dioceses’ organizational charts, finances, insurance, clergy assignments, and treatment of priests, and want certain church leaders to testify before a federal grand jury in Philadelphia to determine if any federal charges should be filed. Those could include sexual exploitation of minors, fraud, and, if prosecutors can prove church leaders conspired to cover up for child-molesting priests, racketeering charges under the RICO Act. The grand jury report indicated that church leaders cooperated in a systematic cover-up by shuffling accused priests between different parishes.

Document Destruction

While some dioceses have confirmed that they will cooperate with the investigation, there may be limits on their ability to do that. Massimo Faggioli, a historian at Villanova University, told the Atlantic that ecclesiastical guidelines that govern the Church require that “all documents that are in the secret archives that pertain to the investigations and trials of members of the clergy that were accused of sexual crimes … must be destroyed every 10 years.” Faggioli speculated that many records may still survive — “because I think they forgot” — obtaining decades old records may prove impossible.

McSwain and the DOJ declined to comment on the subpoenas or a pending investigation, so we’ll just have to wait to see if charges are presented to a federal grand jury or filed.

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