Justice Department investigating sex abuse of kids in Pa.’s Catholic Church

Carolyn Fortney, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her family's Roman Catholic parish priest as a child, awaits legislation in the Pennsylvania Capitol to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Carolyn Fortney, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her family's Roman Catholic parish priest as a child, awaits legislation in the Pennsylvania Capitol to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Updated: 5 p.m.

The U.S. Justice Department has launched a probe into child sex abuse within Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic Church, sending subpoenas to dioceses across the state seeking private files and records. The effort is an attempt  to learn whether the conduct of the clergy over decades creates a basis for filing federal criminal charges, WHYY has learned.

Federal authorities issued the subpoenas as an investigation into possible violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, according to a person close to the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Known as RICO, that law historically has been used to dismantle organized crime syndicates including the Mafia.

The source would not elaborate on what other potential federal crimes could be in play as part of the inquiry, which could be a years-long effort and is now in its early stages.

Officials at six of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Scranton and Harrisburg — have confirmed to WHYY that they have received and are complying with federal subpoenas.

“There is a consensus rising, which is this just has to stop. And it won’t stop if prosecutors just sit on their hands,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who also runs Child USA, a group that advocates for victims of child sex abuse. “The federal government has been silent on these issues to date, and it’s high time they got to work.”

The federal investigation follows a sweeping grand jury report from the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office that found that more than 1,000 minors were abused at the hands of some 300 priests across the state. Dozens of  other clergy members took part in a systemic cover-up of the abuse, according to the report.

Yet since many of the allegations stretch back decades, some to the 1940s, a number of alleged perpetrators have died. And in part because of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, just two of the priests named in the scathing report were charged as a result of the state-led investigation.

“Maybe any [U.S.] statute of limitations that apply could be longer and, so, they might be able to sweep more broadly whom the local prosecutors couldn’t touch because it had expired in Pennsylvania,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.  “This could bring the full force of the federal government to bear. It’s potentially enormous.”

The subpoenas, first reported on by the Associated Press, were issued by U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Bill McSwain. A spokeswoman for McSwain declined to comment.

Legal experts said proving a RICO case against the Catholic Church, basically treating the powerful institution as a crime syndicate, will not be an easy feat.

Hamilton, for one, said she thinks using federal RICO at a weapon against the church would be especially complicated, since the law is not designed to deal with sex abuse and other personal injury cases. Most RICO cases involve financial crimes.

“I hope that they can find a way to make it fit, but it will be challenging,” she said.

Hamilton said the federal Mann Act, which prohibits moving people across state lines for the purpose of illegal sex acts, could be a more promising avenue to explore.

“As we know, there have been plenty of priests who took children across state lines,” she said.

Tobias, the law professor who specializes in federal courts, said whatever comes of the investigation, the subpoenas have likely sent a jolt across the country. If the inquiry triggers criminal charges, it could be replicated elsewhere, he said.

“Pennsylvania might be the first state where the federal government does this,” Tobias said. “But then they build on the lessons they’ve learned there, as DOJ often does, when they have a national issue and go to the other states and use that template again.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.