The New York attorney general’s office has issued subpoenas to every Catholic diocese in the state, becoming the latest U.S. state to embark on a major investigation of sex crimes committed and covered up by Catholic priests. And New Jersey quickly followed on Thursday, announcing a criminal task force focused on investigating sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
A person familiar with the New York investigation said that the attorney general’s office sent civil subpoenas to the eight Catholic dioceses. The Associated Press first reported the subpoenas.
The subpoenas are part of an ongoing civil investigation by the attorney general’s Charities Bureau, which is looking into whether the nonprofit dioceses covered up sexual abuse of minors. Separately, the criminal division is working with district attorneys in the state who might convene grand juries to investigate crimes committed by priests. On Thursday, Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced a telephone hotline and an online form for victims and witnesses of child abuse committed by clergy in the state of New York to contact investigators.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal also said that his office had set up a new telephone hotline for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and would investigate the allegations through its new criminal task force.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro set off a wave of investigative interest nationwide when he announced last month the results of a massive grand jury investigation, which found allegations that more than 1,000 children were sexually abused by more than 300 priests in six of the state’s Catholic dioceses, over a period spanning more than 70 years.
Due to the statute of limitations on sex crimes, almost all the abuses documented by the Pennsylvania grand jury cannot lead to criminal prosecutions, and Underwood’s office warned that any victims who report abuse in New York might also find that the crimes are no longer prosecutable under state law.
The Pennsylvania report set off a storm across the country, with many Catholic faithful demanding that their own dioceses open their files to criminal investigators to examine whether a similarly extensive cover-up took place.
After the Pennsylvania report, The Washington Post reached out to the attorneys general of the 49 other states as well as the District of Columbia to see if they had plans to launch similar inquiries or had investigations already underway. Many said they could not comment on potential investigations, while others said they lacked the authority to immediately act on local cases.
Missouri became the first state to launch an investigation in the wake of the Pennsylvania report, announcing last month that it would explore allegations of alleged abuses by clergy in the St. Louis area, which is home to more than half a million Catholics.
Albany bishop Edward Scharfenberger, who leads one of the eight dioceses subpoenaed in New York, said on Thursday that he had asked Albany’s district attorney to review the diocese’s records of handling sexual abuse cases. In a letter to parishioners on Thursday, Scharfenberger said his decision to contact law enforcement “is necessary and ultimately will result in much good, but [is] one that is likely to be difficult and incredibly challenging for us for the foreseeable future.”
“I believe a fully independent investigation, one coordinated by the District Attorney, is the only way forward,” Scharfenberger wrote. “So many people have questions about transparency and about the process. We need a thorough review of our records in order to objectively answer those questions. Our goal is to build trust, demonstrate transparency, and restore confidence that we mean what we say.”
In the archdiocese of New York, which includes most of New York City, spokesman Joseph Zwilling said that the archdiocese has not seen the subpoena but will be “ready and eager” to comply with a civil investigation.
As Catholics looked to their own leaders to follow Pennsylvania’s and now New York’s example – D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, for one, has said that his phone has been ringing off the hook since the Pennsylvania report — some states have noted they have different laws than Pennsylvania.
The office of Ohio’s attorney general said that local law enforcement, not the state office, has the jurisdiction to initiate this kind of investigation. Other attorneys general said that in their states, investigations must either be launched on a local level or referred by local officials to state authorities.
In some states, the offices of attorneys general noted that they have relatively limited authority for prosecuting criminal violations; in Connecticut, for instance, an official wrote that the attorney general there lacks “any criminal law authority (outside of certain home improvement contractor violations).”
Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general, said after his state’s report was released that other attorneys general and state prosecutors had reached out to his office. He and his office declined to stay which states, but officials in attorney general offices in two states — Kentucky and New Mexico — both confirmed to The Post that they had been in touch with Shapiro’s office.
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