Pros­e­cu­tors are step­ping up scru­tiny of church

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Juliet Lin­der­man, Garance Burke and Martha Men­doza

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.

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