Prosecutors are stepping up scrutiny of church
DETROIT Hundreds of boxes. Millions of records. From Michigan to New Mexico, attorneys general are sifting through files on clergy sexual abuse this month, seized through search warrants and subpoenas at dozens of archdioceses.
They’re looking to prosecute, and not just priests. If the boxes lining the hallways of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s offices contain enough evidence, she said, she is considering using state racketeering laws usually reserved for organized crime. Prosecutors in Michigan are even volunteering on weekends to get through all the material.
For decades, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were largely
left to police their own. But this week, as American bishops gather for a conference in Baltimore to confront the reignited sexual abuse crisis, they’re facing the most scrutiny ever from secular law enforcement.
An Associated Press query of more than 20 state and federal prosecutors last week found they are looking for legal means to hold higher- ups in the church accountable. They have raided diocesan offices, subpoenaed files, set up victim tip lines and launched investigations into new and old allegations. Thousands of people have called hotlines nationwide, and five priests have recently been arrested.
“Some of the things I’ve seen in the files makes your blood boil, to be honest with you,” Nessel said. “When you’re investigating gangs or the Mafia, we would call some of this conduct a criminal enterprise.”
If a prosecutor applies racketeering laws, also known as RICO, against church leaders, bishops and other church officials could face criminal consequences for enabling predator priests. Such a move would mark the first known time that actions by a U. S. Catholic church leader were branded a criminal enterprise.
In February, the leaders of the Catholic Church in Colorado said it would allow a former federal prosecutor to review decades of files related to allegations of sexual abuse of children as part of a landmark agreement with the state’s attorney general to evaluate how the church handles those claims.
The state’s three Catholic dioceses would have no oversight of the review, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said. The dioceses also announced they have established a fund to pay reparations to victims of Colorado priests.
“This is not a criminal investigation,” Weiser said. “This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church.”
There have been no new allegations of child sex abuse by Colorado priests since 2002 and no current priests are under such investigation, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila said in February.
Monsignor G. Michael Bugarin, who handles sexual abuse accusations for the Detroit Archdiocese, said they too are committed to ending abuse and coverups. Bugarin said they cooperate closely with law enforcement, and that doesn’t change if the attorney general is considering organized crime charges.
“The law is the law, so I think we just have to respect what the current law is,” he said.
Some defenders of the church bristle at the notion of increased legal action, saying the Catholic institution is being singled out.
A spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to comment on law enforcement investigations into specific dioceses across the country, instead referring all such inquiries to the dioceses themselves.
Seventeen years after U. S. bishops passed a “zero tolerance” policy against sexually abusive priests, they too are considering new measures for accountability over abuse. And last month, Pope Francis issued a global order requiring all Catholic priests and nuns to report clergy sexual abuse and coverups to church leaders.
In a presentation Tuesday before the bishops’ conference, Dr. Francesco Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, recommended establishing lay commissions to review allegations made against bishops.
In response to a question about reporting allegations to police, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, chair of the Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations Committee, said bishops are required to follow the law.
The attorneys general investigations follow a Pennsylvania investigation that documented decades of clergy abuse and coverups, pushing the Catholic Church’s sex assault scandal back into the mainstream last summer.
Some U. S. attorneys general followed up with calls to Pennsylvania. While most have not launched public investigations, more than a dozen have. Many of those opened telephone hotlines or online questionnaires for confidential complaints.
Pennsylvania has been flooded with calls, some 1,800 from victims and families over the last three years. New Jersey’s and Michigan’s tip lines have received about 500 calls each, while Illinois has received nearly 400 calls and emails. In Iowa, 11 people who identified themselves as victims and their relatives came forward in the first three days.