The Justice Department has launched a federal investigation into sexual abuse by clergy across Pennsylvania, the Associated Press reported Thursday. The move is considered a major step in addressing the decades-long sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the Catholic church globally. Until now, investigations have largely been left up to state and local authorities.
The federal prosecutors have begun issuing subpoenas to demand church records that would provide any evidence of clergy or other church personnel transporting children across state lines for sexual abuse sending sexual material about children electronically, or evidence of church officials covering up accusations of predatory behavior by reassigning accused priests or in other ways hiding the allegations.
According to the AP, at least seven of the eight dioceses in the state acknowledged they had received subpoenas and said they would cooperate with the investigation.
The investigation followed an August report by a state grand jury that found the church had covered up decades of abuse, identifying more than 1,000 possible victims of 300 priests in six of the state’s dioceses.
According to the AP, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia made the decision to open the investigation, not senior officials in Washington.
Only two of the priests were able to be charged under Pennsylvania law, as some had died and many others fell out of the statute of limitations. The grand jury report had recommended the state legislature extend the statute of limitations for the sexual abuse of children and open a window for victims to sue their abusers, but the Senate did not pass the bill that would have put those recommendations into action.