By Devlin Barrett and Julie Zauzmer
WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has launched an investigation into alleged sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The move by the Justice Department to launch an investigation, even one limited to a single state, marks a major escalation in the government’s response to allegations that the church spent decades hiding the extent of the sex abuse problem among its priests, and allowing pedophiles to continue to work and live in communities.
“This is just a breathtaking, stunning, and very welcome development,” said Michael Dolce, a lawyer who represents victims of sexual abuse.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia began issuing subpoenas recently, the person familiar with the matter said.
The investigation was sparked after a state grand jury issued a scathing report in August finding that more than 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up.
The lengthy report identified 1,000 children who were victims but concluded there were probably thousands more.
“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades,” the grand jury wrote in its report.
The report was the product of an 18-month investigation into six of the state’s dioceses - Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton - and follows other state grand jury reports that revealed abuse and cover-ups in two other dioceses.
The federal investigation was first reported by The Associated Press.
Dolce said federal laws involving conspiracy and sex crimes across state lines could give investigators legal tools to investigate conduct that reached back over decades.
The decision to launch the investigation was made by the federal prosecutors in Philadelphia, not senior Justice Department officials in Washington, according to the person familiar with the matter.
Since the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal became a nationwide issue in 2002, the Justice Department has largely stayed away from the issue, leaving it to local prosecutors to pursue whatever cases still fell within their states’ statutes of limitations. The church has also struck a series of financial settlements with those who have pursued lawsuits seeking damages.
In Allentown, the diocese said in a statement it “will cooperate fully with the request, just as it cooperated fully with the information requests related to the statewide grand jury. 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.”