Published 8:31 PM EDT Oct 18, 2018
WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has launched an investigation into alleged sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests throughout the Pennsylvania dioceses in wake of a damning report by a state grand jury, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday.
The action by the federal government, which has rarely pursued such inquiries, comes after a Pennsylvania grand jury in August concluded that church leaders protected more than 300 "predator priests" in six dioceses across the state for decades.
The report went on to assert that church leaders were more interested in safeguarding the church and the priests than defending victims.
More than 1,000 young victims were identifiable from the church's own records, the report found.
The federal investigation is based in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, said the person who is not authorized to comment publicly.
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Pennsylvania church officials acknowledged Thursday that they had already received subpoenas seeking information.
“The Diocese of Allentown is responding to an information request contained in a subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania," the diocese said in a written statement. "The diocese 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,” the statement continued.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also confirmed that it had received a grand jury subpoena, "which requires the production of certain documents."
"The Archdiocese will cooperate with the United States Department of Justice in this matter," the office said.
Victims’ advocates and survivors praised the decision, characterizing the action as long overdue.
“The Department of Justice has given hope to survivors and advocates across the country,” the group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement. “Too often, institutions are able to escape accountability through a mix of archaic laws like statutes of limitations, strong-armed agreements to silence survivors who have come forward, or by advancing a culture that keeps survivors fearful, ashamed, and afraid to tell others what had happened to them."
"This is certainly a welcome development,” SNAP said.
The development was first reported Thursday by the Associated Press.
SNAP said it had previously called for federal intervention in the aftermath of similar scandals in 2003, 2014 and as recently as two months ago, following the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered release of the Pennsylvania report earlier this year.
A number of current and former priests who denied the allegations fought to have their names redacted. Meanwhile, some other alleged abusers have died, and statute of limitations laws prevent many others from facing criminal charges.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who outlined the grand jury's findings in August, declined comment Thursday.
In his August announcement, however, Shapiro said the statute of limitations was a crucial consideration in the "systematic coverup" by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.
"The longer they covered it up, the less chance that law enforcement could prosecute these predators because the statute of limitations would run," Shapiro said in the August briefing in Harrisburg. "Almost every instance of child abuse (the grand jury) found was too old to be prosecuted."
Nevertheless, the report has had far-reaching implications for the church.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis accept the resignation of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
The powerful church official, who served as Pittsburgh's bishop for 18 years until 2006, was among those named in the Pennsylvania report as failing to shut down abusers. So far, Wuerl, who has denied any wrongdoing, is the most prominent church leader to fall in the latest scandal.
Wuerl sent a letter to Washington priests defending his efforts on behalf of victims and claiming a "zero tolerance policy" for clergy abuse, the Associated Press reported.
“It moved me not simply to address these acts, but to be fully engaged, to meet with survivors and their families, and to do what I could to bring them comfort and try to begin a process for healing,” Wuerl wrote.
In July, Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Washington, D.C., archbishop who faces allegations of sexually abusing a minor 47 years ago when he was a priest in New York.
The pope ordered McCarrick's suspension from the exercise of any public ministry and directed him to "a life of prayer and penance" until the accusations of sexual misconduct are examined in a regular canonical trial.
"While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people," McCarrick said in a statement.