The Justice Department’s Investigation of Clergy Sexual Abuse Will Test the Catholic Hierarchy


The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual-abuse allegations in Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press. At least six of the state’s dioceses have confirmed to various news outlets that they received subpoenas from federal investigators, which likely means they’ll have to produce documents detailing any alleged cases of sexual misconduct, along with efforts to cover up past clergy crimes.

The investigation comes in the wake of a devastating grand-jury report released this summer, which revealed the collected scope and horror of decades of abuse in Pennsylvania. It significantly escalates the involvement of secular authorities in the clergy sexual-abuse scandal. State law enforcement around the country has investigated and prosecuted a number of priests accused of sex crimes, including in Pennsylvania. But so far the federal government has generally not been involved in handling these kinds of allegations. This next stage will test the Catholic bishops’ stated resolve to give secular authorities full control and transparency in abuse investigations, as the moral and legal stakes of the crisis continue to grow.

The scope of the DOJ’s inquiry in Pennsylvania is not yet clear. The dioceses of Erie and Allentown confirmed to The Atlantic that they have been served subpoenas. CNN reported that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia also acknowledged it is part of the investigation, The New York Times reported that Scranton and Pittsburgh are involved, and the AP reported that the Diocese of Harrisburg confirmed as well.

From what is known so far, a few aspects of the inquiry could potentially be significant. Federal investigators are apparently interested in documents that may have been concealed in so-called secret archives or confidential files, which would likely detail how dioceses handled legal cases involving clergy. This could be important, said Massimo Faggioli, a historian at Villanova University, because it could test whether Church leaders faithfully retained documents on past wrongdoings—or got rid of potential evidence.

According to canon law, or the ecclesiastical guidelines that govern the Church, “All documents that are in the secret archives that pertain to the investigations and trials of members of the clergy that were accused of sexual crimes … must be destroyed every 10 years,” Faggioli said. “This may have an impact on what the feds will find or not find.”

While Faggioli said he thinks most dioceses have not followed this law—“because I think they forgot”—the fact that this hasn’t been removed from canon law is an example of how difficult it has been for the Catholic Church to fully reform its policies related to sexual abuse, he said. The Catholic Church in the United States put in place new policies in the early 2000s in the wake of the scandal in Boston.

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