Next up for PA Church: Federal criminal probe

The scandal-plagued Catholic Church in Pennsylvania is under investigation again, this time by the federal government.

In mid-October, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued subpoenas to all eight Roman Catholic dioceses and the two Eastern Catholic archeparchies in that state, seeking years of internal Church records. Several dioceses told Our Sunday Visitor that they will cooperate with the request.

“This subpoena is no surprise considering the horrific misconduct detailed in the statewide grand jury report,” the Diocese of Greensburg said in a prepared statement. “Survivors, parishioners and the public want to see proof that every diocese has taken sweeping, decisive and impactful action to make children safer. We see this as another opportunity for the Diocese of Greensburg to be transparent.”

Father Nicholas S. Vaskov, a spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said the diocese had received a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice “and will cooperate fully with any and all investigations of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Pennsylvania.”

“The Diocese sees itself as a partner with law enforcement in its goal to eliminate the abuse of minors wherever it may occur in society,” the Diocese of Allentown also said in a prepared statement.

Possible scope

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia and the U.S. Department of Justice are not confirming or commenting on the new probe, but various published reports indicate that federal investigators are requesting documents and materials related to the alleged transporting of children across state lines for sexual abuse, as well as transmitting sexually explicit images of children and engaging in efforts to cover up those alleged crimes.

If such evidence is found — and prior municipal and state grand jury investigations across Pennsylvania indicate that it may — federal prosecutors may seek to file serious criminal charges against current and former Church officials that could include possession and transmission of child pornography and human trafficking.

There are even indications that the U.S. Attorney’s Office could be looking to build a RICO case against the Church, which would be a staggering development since federal prosecutors have primarily used that statute to investigate and prosecute organized crime syndicates like the Mafia.

“Nobody likes to talk about it, especially if you’re a Catholic, that you’re basically applying the RICO statute to the Church, but on the other hand, who can deny at this point that there’s a very significant problem, that the problem has continued to persist and that the Church has disqualified itself from handling this?” said David Hickton, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania from 2010-17.

Hickton, the director and founder of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, told OSV that child abuse and related obstruction of justice are predicate offenses for RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Whereas the Pennsylvania State Attorney General’s recent grand jury report was confined to the state, a federal probe could expand the investigation outside of Pennsylvania.

“Since some of the conduct might have crossed state lines, some of the conduct may involve other components of the Church outside of here,” Hickton said. “The process of relocating priests might or might not have been confined to Pennsylvania.”

Catalysts

In 2016, Hickton, then as the U.S. Attorney, said he sought to build a RICO case against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown following a state grand jury investigation that detailed decades of child sexual abuse in that diocese. In March 2017, a few months after Hickton left the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the diocese entered into a memorandum of understanding with federal prosecutors to institute reforms to protect children from sexual abuse, to report abuse allegations to law enforcement and provide counseling to victims.

“I think Catholics have the right to expect that the Church leadership would be more vigilant by getting to the bottom of this, and not be less vigilant compared to state prosecutors and federal prosecutors. I think we have that right to expect that,” said Hickton, who is Catholic.

The federal probe in Pennsylvania is occurring at the same time that about a dozen state attorneys general across the country are issuing subpoenas, convening task forces and demanding records from the Catholic dioceses in their states.

The investigations were sparked in large part by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which in mid-August released a devastating grand jury report that said 301 priests in that state sexually abused more than 1,000 child victims over a 70-year period.

“The state investigation in Pennsylvania has obviously been a catalyst for many investigations to happen across the country, which is needed to end the wholesale sexual abuse of children by priests, and the coverup,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented dozens of clergy sex abuse victims.

In addition, the Catholic Church in the United States this year was hit by revelations that Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, 88, the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, D.C., sexually abused seminarians and minors. McCarrick has denied those allegations.

“The McCarrick story drew attention to the corruption in the hierarchy. I wouldn’t doubt if there were indictments coming from these subpoenas,” said Robert M. Hoatson, a former priest and clergy sexual abuse victim who founded Road to Recovery, a New Jersey-based advocacy group for victims.

A new chapter

Hoatson, who was invited by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to attend the press conference releasing the grand jury report in August, told OSV that he and other whistleblowers for years have been calling for a federal investigation. He said the “tide has turned” in their favor.

“It looks like those of us who have been screaming out that this is endemic to the system are finally being listened to,” Hoatson said. “We’re talking about crimes here that might implicate the system and not just individual priests as well.”

Garabedian also told OSV that he believes the federal investigation, which he called groundbreaking, will uncover more of the breadth and scope of the abuse crisis and coverup in not only Pennsylvania, but also across the country.

“The broader powers of the federal government will bring into play whether children were transported across state lines, or brought out of the country and sexually abused, and whether there was a coverup of that and whether photos were transmitted electronically,” said Garabedian, who was portrayed in the movie “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into the clergy sex abuse scandal and coverup in Boston.

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The latest chapter in the U.S. Catholic Church’s reckoning with child sex abuse is also occurring in the backyard of Philadelphia native Rocco Palmo, a journalist who authors the website Whispers in the Loggia.

“In every way, shape and form, this is an entirely new ball game,” said Palmo, who has written about the federal investigation and had been working for weeks to break the story about the subpoenas. “This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly Contributing Editor.