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What started out as an investigation into child abuse in Pennsylvania Catholic churches has now escalated to an intervention by the federal government. In mid-October 2018, federal prosecutors opened a new probe into reports of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in seven of the eight dioceses in the state.

The move follows a scathing grand jury report that was released in August 2018, in which investigators found that at least 1,000 children had been abused by so-called “predator priests” in 54 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Philadelphia Attorney Issues Federal Subpoenas to Church Dioceses

The Washington Post notes that this is the first federal probe into Catholic abuse ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department, with previous investigations handled by state and local authorities. In the interest of finding out if any of the church leaders committed federal crimes like sexual exploitation of minors and/or fraud, U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia issued subpoenas to at least seven of the state’s eight dioceses.

McSwain also asked for the bishops to submit any evidence that anyone in a leadership position committed any of the following potential crimes:

  • Took children across state lines for illicit purposes
  • Dissuaded people from contacting the police
  • Sent sexual images or messages electronically
  • Reassigned suspected predators
  • Used money or assets to conceal abusive conduct

It’s also expected that McSwain will demand that some church leaders testify before a federal grand jury in the future.

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report Reveals Decades of Abuse

The unprecedented move comes on the heels of a Pennsylvania grand jury report in which investigators uncovered evidence revealing that at least 300 priests had engaged in child sexual abuse and over 1,000 children had suffered because of their conduct. The jury noted they believed the actual number to be much higher—in the thousands—because of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid to come forward.

The report came out after an 18-month investigation into only six of the state’s eight dioceses, while other state grand jury reports have revealed similar abuse in the other two. In addition to the abuse itself, investigators discovered evidence showing the church’s efforts to keep it quiet, including a “secret archive” where abuse complaints were kept locked up, and church-run psychiatric treatment centers where abusive priests were sent for evaluations.

Even priests who admitted to having a problem were left in service, as in one example from the Allentown diocese. In the church’s own records, documents show that a priest admitted that he sexually molested a boy, but the diocese concluded that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim, and that the family should be given “an opportunity to ventilate.” The priest was left in ministry for several more years.

The federal investigation is welcomed by victims, many of whom were discouraged when a bill that would have opened a legal window allowing victims to sue their abusers was recently stalled in the Senate. Current Pennsylvania law bars civil lawsuits after the victim turns 30 years of age.

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