Legal authorities in New York and New Jersey announced sweeping inquiries into sexual abuse committed or facilitated by employees of the Roman Catholic Church on Thursday, just two-and-a-half years after Oscars voters lauded a film about journalists’ 2002 investigation into such abuses from the 1990s and earlier.
Thursday’s investigations follow similar overtures from the attorneys general of Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Nebraska. Florida’s Pam Bondi also says she’s reaching out to local prosecutors there to weigh her options for a similar probe, though her office has not issued formal demands for documents as in the other jurisdictions according to Religion News Service.
The six new state inquiries come weeks after a Pennsylvania grand jury concluded that more than 300 separate Catholic clergy in that state had serially abused children in their congregations, and 16 years after survivors, victims, and reporters first pushed the church’s patterns of abuse and cover-ups into the national spotlight.
“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover-ups in the dioceses,” New York attorney general Barbara Underwood said Thursday, 33 years after the first time a Catholic priest’s sexual abuse of parishoners became public in Louisiana.
The six states thus far inspired by Pennsylvania’s attempt at a reckoning are home to almost 52 million of the country’s 325 million residents, or roughly one in every six U.S. persons. Should Bondi launch her own probe in 20-million-resident Florida, the share of Americans living in a state where the church faces a long-overdue criminal reckoning would jump to more than one in five. Add 13 million Pennsylvanians and the roughly 7 million people living in Massachusetts — where the 2002 series from the Boston Globe’s investigative team revealed similarly widespread, unpunished, and intentionally concealed sexual abuse of Catholic kids by the primary spiritual authorities in their lives — and you’ve got well over a quarter of the population living somewhere such abuse has been alleged, documented, or investigated by either government actors or the fourth estate.
The new wave of criminal investigations seeking to consolidate longstanding allegations into modern accountability mark a level jump from past attempts to convert widespread reports into court cases. Numerous local prosecutors have conducted similar investigations in the past, the New York Times notes, but Pennsylvania’s bombshell was “thought to be the most comprehensive of its kind” in national history, according to NPR. The report also implicated officials in out-of-state dioceses of the church in committing or concealing abuse of Pennsylvania children.
However laudable the new push to put sunlight on the church’s sins, actual criminal penalties will be impossible in many cases unless state lawmakers change the statutes of limitations governing child sexual abuse cases. In New York, for instance, a person cannot seek such charges after turning 23.
The church hierarchy’s reaction to the Pennsylvania report’s reinvigorating impact on anger that’s simmered but rarely boiled over through decades and decades of formal and informal evidence-gathering has been mixed. A conservative cardinal used the report to accuse Pope Francis of having direct knowledge of abuser priests named by the grand jury but doing nothing. Francis himself expressed sorrow and shame, but the Vatican’s official statement also argued that Pennsylvania’s findings vindicate its claims that it more or less eradicated priestly abuse with reforms made in 2002. And when Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig approached a former cardinal from the church’s D.C. hierarchy to ask about what her church knew and when, the local diocese responded by calling Post editor Marty Baron — who’d overseen the Globe investigation 16 years ago that got an Oscar-winning big-screen turn in 2015 — to complain that Bruenig was intimidating the officials who govern a practicing Catholic’s relationship to the divine.