New York’s next attorney general could determine whether six Catholic dioceses and one archdiocese in this state face a sweeping investigation into clergy sexual abuse similar to one that exposed a massive cover-up of abuses in Pennsylvania.
Five candidates are vying to be elected in November to the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement post.
The Buffalo News this week asked each of the candidates how they will proceed on the issue of clergy sexual abuse if elected to the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement post. Two of the candidates said they would investigate, while the other three said they would collaborate with local district attorneys on any investigation.
The News also asked if the candidates supported passage of the Child Victims Act – which would extend the time that civil lawsuits and criminal charges could be brought in cases of child sexual abuse – and all but one said yes. Democrat Leecia Eve of Buffalo said she had yet to take a position on the legislation.
The blistering grand jury report released last week revealed some 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania and prompted victims to push harder for similar investigations of Catholic dioceses by attorneys general in other states, including New York.
Victims of abuse and their advocates want to see the New York attorney general use search warrants and subpoenas to ferret out secret church archives that they believe will show diocesan leaders committed crimes by hiding abuses and protecting predator priests.
A spokeswoman for current Attorney General Barbara Underwood has said that, in New York, the governor must first issue an executive order granting the attorney general prosecutorial authority to pursue a criminal investigation into sexual abuse like the one in Pennsylvania.
Four Democrats are squaring off in a primary for attorney general this September: Letitia James, the New York City public advocate, who was nominated at the state party convention; Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of the Hudson Valley; Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and former candidate for governor; and Eve, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
And Republican Keith H. Wofford, a Buffalo native, City Honors School graduate and a partner at the law firm Ropes & Gray, is running in November with the backing of the party. Wofford lives in New York City.
The News asked the five candidates the following question: In light of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy abuse, issued last week, would you – if elected – conduct a similar statewide investigation in New York?
Here is how they responded:
Eve: Eve said she would give serious consideration to conducting an investigation into Catholic clergy abuse similar to the investigation conducted in Pennsylvania. “I can’t speak to the breadth of the problem in New York State, but I believe the extraordinary and horrific findings of the Pennsylvania attorney general and the unequivocal findings of abuse of thousands of children in other states suggests that a comprehensive look may be warranted in our state. As attorney general, close to the beginning of my term, I would sit down with district attorneys from all over the state to get a better understanding of what they are dealing with, and get their input before making a decision on what our role should be on a statewide level. I want to add that I believe the vast majority of Catholic priests and Catholic church leaders do extraordinary work, not only for their parishioners, but for refugees and for the poor all over this state. But the Pennsylvania case shows us that there have been systemic problems that have caused harm to children, the most vulnerable people in this state.”
James: “The Pennsylvania grand jury report is horrific and a damning statement on the church's failure to protect children. No child should ever be harmed like this, and as attorney general, I will use the powers of my office to investigate any similar systemic abuse and any institutional cover-up."
Maloney: "Yes. Last week, Cardinal O’Malley, one of the Pope’s top advisers on sexual abuse in the church stated that 'the clock is ticking for all of us in church leadership. Catholics have lost patience with us and civil society has lost confidence in us.' Cardinal O’Malley is right. But I don't think the clock is still ticking, time is up. As AG, I will initiate a statewide investigation into allegations of clergy sexual abuse and misconduct, and I will pursue civil and criminal action for any wrongdoing.
"Listen, my mom and dad went to Mass every single day. Not just Sundays – every day. I think the best thing I ever did in my folk's eyes was going to Catholic college and then doing a year of service with the Jesuits in Peru. Like millions of New Yorkers, faith was central to my upbringing and continues to be to this day. People like my parents, my family, must be protected from predatory or complicit clergy who would take advantage of their faith. These crimes are the ultimate betrayal – we need to know how pervasive the problem is, then we need to hold the individuals and those in power accountable."
Teachout: "The combination of the Pennsylvania AG’s report and the disturbing allegations about New York abuses demand an investigation here in New York. Unlike the Pennsylvania AG, the New York AG doesn’t have jurisdiction to convene a grand jury, that’s why it’s so key to partner with local district attorneys who do have that power and that’s exactly what I’d do."
Wofford: "Yes, I would support conducting an investigation and work as appropriate with local district attorneys. The allegations being brought to light are despicable, and I feel terrible for the victims of this abuse. No child should be made to feel uncomfortable or threatened by their religious leaders. This issue needs to be addressed, and if conducting an investigation will help solve the problem and protect our children, then yes I would consider it."
The Buffalo Diocese since late February has been reeling from a continuing scandal over cover-up of clergy sex abuse dating back decades. A retired priest’s admission that he had molested boys in the 1970s and 1980s led to revelations of dozens of other sex abuse cases.
Underwood, who was appointed attorney general and is not running for election, on Thursday directed her criminal division leadership to reach out to local district attorneys who have the power the convene investigative grand juries for sex abuse cases “to establish a potential partnership on this issue,” said the spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick.
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said Wednesday his office is talking with Underwood's office about a possible joint investigation into clergy sexual abuse probe.
Underwood replaced Eric Schneiderman in May after Schneiderman resigned abruptly amid accusations he physically abused multiple women.
The News also asked the candidates if they were in favor of the Child Victims Act, legislation that would expand the state’s restrictive statute of limitations around sexual abuse cases.
Current law gives victims until their 23rd birthday the opportunity to bring civil and criminal cases. The Child Victims Act would expand it to age 50 for civil cases and age 28 for felony criminal cases. The bill advocated by abuse victims also includes a controversial look-back provision that would open a one-year window during which victims could file lawsuits for cases potentially dating back decades.
The Catholic Church, some yeshivas, the Boy Scouts and the insurance industry have lobbied heavily against the look-back provision.
Here's how the candidates responded:
Eve: “I have not taken a position yet, because I see the concerns on both sides. I do feel that the Child Victims Act, or some version of it, must be given serious consideration to help victims get justice. We need to be mindful of the concerns voiced about (statute of limitations issues) but the goal of the attorney general has to be that justice is served.” She said she would reach out to “thoughtful leaders of the Catholic Church” and try to find some compromise solution that would provide “justice or financial compensation for the victims.”
James: “I will also use my bully pulpit to call for the Child Victims Act to immediately be enacted. While there is no expiration date on a victim’s pain and suffering, this law will help ensure justice is served. We must do all we can to protect victims, support survivors, and bring abusers to justice.”
Maloney: "I am strongly in support of the passing of the Child Victims Act. We must hold predators accountable – no matter who they are and no matter how much time has passed since their crime. If we continue to let repeat offenders get away with their predatory behavior, we will never be able to provide survivors with the peace-of-mind that they deserve."
Teachout: "I emphatically support the Child Victims Act. It’s outrageous that survivors of childhood sexual abuse have to beg and plead for a simple extension of the statute of limitations so they can bring their abusers to court. Currently the clock runs out at age 23, which is simply unreasonable given everything we know about trauma. There’s no legal or administrative reason not to pass the Child Victims Act, only a lack of political will."
Wofford: "New York State laws regarding the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes are too restrictive and thus unfair to victims. I would favor legislation designed to protect people from predators, and help all victims seek justice under due process of the law."