Pros­e­cu­tors up scru­tiny of Catholic Church


Hun­dreds of boxes. Mil­lions of records. From Michi­gan to New Mex­ico this month, at­tor­neys gen­eral are sift­ing through files on clergy sex abuse, 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 doc­u­ments as quickly as pos­si­ble.

For decades, lead­ers of the Ro­man Catholic Church were largely left to po­lice their own. But now, as Amer­i­can bish­ops gather for a con­fer­ence to con­front the reignited sex-abuse cri­sis this week, they’re fac­ing the most scru­tiny ever from sec­u­lar law en­force­ment.

A na­tion­wide 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 for sex abuse. They have raided dioce­san of­fices, sub­poe­naed files, set up vic­tim tip lines and launched sweeping in­ves­ti­ga­tions into decades-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, ex­perts say. Such a move by Michi­gan or one of the other law en­force­ment agen­cies would mark the first known time that ac­tions by a dio­cese or church leader were branded a crim­i­nal en­ter­prise akin to or­ga­nized crime.

“That would be an im­por­tant step be­cause it would set the stan­dard for pur­su­ing jus­tice in these cases,” said Marci Hamilton, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and CEO of CHILD USA, a Philadel­phia-based think tank that tracks statute of lim­i­ta­tions re­forms.

Mon­signor G. Michael Bu­garin, who han­dles sex abuse ac­cu­sa­tions for the Detroit Arch­dio­cese, said they too are com­mit­ted to end­ing abuse and cover-ups. Bu­garin said they co­op­er­ate with law en­force­ment, and that won’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 by overzeal­ous pros­e­cu­tors. 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 cover-ups to church author­i­ties.

At the con­fer­ence on Tues­day, Arch­bishop of Mi­ami Thomas Wen­ski asked if a greater em­pha­sis should be placed on swiftly re­port­ing al­le­ga­tions to civil author­i­ties.

“If this is some­thing that’s crim­i­nal, isn’t the first re­sponse to the al­leged vic­tim to tell them, ‘this is a crime, call the author­i­ties’?” Wen­ski asked. “Where we got into trou­ble be­fore was, be­fore re­port­ing crimes we wanted to take it upon our­selves to de­ter­mine whether there was a crime to re­port, and that’s not what we should be do­ing.”

In re­sponse, Car­di­nal Joseph W. Tobin, chair of the Clergy, Con­se­crated Life and Vo­ca­tions Com­mit­tee, said all bish­ops should fol­low the law in re­port­ing crimes to author­i­ties.

The meet­ing fol­lows a grand jury re­port that doc­u­mented decades of clergy abuse and coverups in Penn­syl­va­nia, which thrust the Catholic Church’s sex as­sault scan­dal back into the main­stream last fall and spurred pros­e­cu­tors across the U.S. to launch in­ves­ti­ga­tions of their home­town dio­ce­ses.

Since then, many states have launched tele­phone hot­lines or on­line ques­tion­naires for con­fi­den­tial com­plaints in­clud­ing Vir­ginia, Nebraska and Cal­i­for­nia.

Penn­syl­va­nia has been flooded with calls, some 1,800 from vic­tims and fam­i­lies over the last three years. In Iowa, 11 peo­ple who iden­ti­fied them­selves as vic­tims and their rel­a­tives came for­ward in the hotline and ques­tion­naire’s first three days. New Jersey and Michi­gan’s tip lines have re­ceived about 500 calls each, while Illi­nois has re­ceived nearly 400 calls and emails, in­clud­ing 160 from sur­vivors.

In con­trast, Delaware’s at­tor­ney gen­eral tip line has had four calls since Novem­ber 2018, a spokesper­son said. Of­fi­cials in Ver­mont say they can­not com­ment be­cause the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing, but that they are aware of dozens of vic­tims of al­leged crim­i­nal mis­con­duct.

While priests have been pros­e­cuted in the past, top law en­force­ment scru­tiny of church author­i­ties has been rel­a­tively rare. In 2012, Bishop Robert Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph dio­cese in Mis­souri was the first and only Amer­i­can prelate con­victed for his role in aid­ing a priest, when he was found guilty of fail­ing to re­port child pornog­ra­phy on a cleric’s lap­top to author­i­ties.

AP reached out to at­tor­neys gen­eral in 18 states, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in three ju­ris­dic­tions and the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment to learn more about the new round of in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Some of the ac­cused priests in Penn­syl­va­nia had ties to other states, prompt­ing those at­tor­neys gen­eral, such as New Mex­ico, for ex­am­ple, to take a fresh look.

Be­fore Penn­syl­va­nia’s at­tor­ney gen­eral got in­volved, cases against preda­tor priests were largely the purview of lo­cal po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors, or pri­vate at­tor­neys bring­ing law­suits and civil claims. Although Penn­syl­va­nia’s at­tor­ney gen­eral of­fice says pros­e­cu­tors have spo­ken with their coun­ter­parts from al­most ev­ery state, most at­tor­neys gen­eral in the U.S. have not taken pub­lic action.

In Ken­tucky, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Andy Bes­hear wanted to in­ves­ti­gate but lacked ju­ris­dic­tion.

Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Dana Nes­sel is con­sid­er­ing state rack­e­teer­ing laws in clergy sex abuse cases.

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