The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation of child sexual abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, using subpoenas to demand confidential files and testimony from church leaders, according to two people familiar with the probe.
The subpoenas, served last week, follow a scathing state grand jury report over the summer that found that 301 "predator priests" in Pennsylvania had molested more than 1,000 children over seven decades and that church leaders had covered up for the offenders.
Now federal prosecutors are bringing the Justice Department's considerable resources to bear, according to two people who were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
"It's groundbreaking if we're going to see one of the U.S. attorneys pursuing the Catholic cases," said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and chief executive of Child USA, a nonprofit think tank focused on preventing child abuse. "The federal government has so far been utterly silent on the Catholic cases."
U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia, who issued the subpoenas, wants to know if priests, bishops, seminarians or others committed any federal crimes.
He demanded the bishops turn over any evidence that anyone in their ranks took children across state lines for illicit purposes; sent sexual images or messages via phone or computer; instructed anyone not to contact police; reassigned suspected predators; or used money or other assets as part of the scandal.
The grand jury subpoenas also seek documents stored in "Secret Archives," ''Historical Archives" or "Confidential Files," and records related to the dioceses' organizational charts, finances, insurance coverage, clergy assignments and treatment of priests, according to the people who spoke to the AP.
A representative for McSwain declined to comment, as did a Justice Department spokeswoman.
"It's a courageous move, whenever prosecutors take on something that there's no precedent for, that is uncertain. You're investing resources with potentially no return. But it needs to be done," said David Hickton, the former U.S. attorney in western Pennsylvania who considered accusing the Altoona-Johnson Diocese of criminal or civil racketeering in 2016 but left office before the investigation was completed. The diocese eventually settled with his successor, signing a consent decree promising to make reforms.
Though child sex abuse cases are generally handled by local prosecutors, federal prosecutors can step in at times. McSwain's predecessors have been aggressive in pursuing international "sex tourism" cases in recent years, once bringing teenage boys from the Eastern European nation of Moldova to Philadelphia to testify about an American businessman who preyed on them.
The nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury report found that church leaders had engaged in a systematic cover-up by shuffling accused priests around to different parishes and in some cases working to prevent police investigations. Because of the statute of limitations, however, only two priests were charged as a result of the investigation. Many other priests are dead.
Legal experts said that if federal prosecutors can show that church leaders systematically covered up for child-molesting priests in the past five years, dioceses could be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the federal law originally passed to bring down the Mafia.
"If you were going to file a criminal RICO or a civil RICO, the decision is how much of the leadership do you have to capture?" Hickton asked Thursday. "The bishops themselves are captains of ships, but the admiral is the pope."
Two Eastern Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania also appear to be subjects of the federal grand jury investigation.
A leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia wrote to parishioners last week saying he was cooperating with a subpoena and would turn over documents promptly. A lawyer for the Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week that it, too, is involved in the preliminary stages of an investigation. The lawyer declined to elaborate to the AP.
The grand jury report, issued by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, led to a showdown in the state Legislature this week when he pushed to give child-abuse victims a two-year window to sue the church in cases otherwise too old to pursue.
Church leaders opposed the change, warning it would cripple their ability to fund Catholic charities and enrich lawyers. Lawmakers ended the session Wednesday without taking action.
Shapiro declined to comment Thursday on the federal investigation.
In 2011, the Philadelphia district attorney's office brought a landmark cover-up case against Monsignor William Lynn, a longtime aide to two Philadelphia cardinals. The case illustrated how difficult it can be to make such charges stick.
Lynn became the first U.S. church official ever prosecuted for the alleged cover-up of child molestation by priests when he was arrested on child-endangerment charges. At trial, he said he had merely followed orders from above. A jury convicted him in 2012. He spent three years in and out of prison as his conviction was twice overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He is awaiting a third trial.