WASHINGTON — Attorneys general in 20 states and the District of Columbia are conducting investigations into child sex abuse and cover-ups by the Church. These investigations continue one year after the bombshell Pennsylvania grand jury report, which subsequently helped prompt new guidelines from the Vatican on the handling of sexual abuse.
There are known investigations into Church sex-abuse allegations and cover-ups in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, Virginia, Vermont, Florida, New Mexico, New York, Delaware, California, Kansas, Indiana, Colorado, Georgia, Nebraska, West Virginia, Illinois, Michigan and Iowa. There could be as many as 45 states investigating the Church behind the scenes, as well, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
The Pennsylvania report has also reportedly prompted statute-of-limitations reform laws in 21 jurisdictions, which extend or eliminate their statute of limitations for reporting child sex abuse.
On Aug. 14, 22 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, a province of the Society of Jesus, multiple priests, eight parishes, three high schools and a seminary, among others, alleging “a pattern of racketeering activity” that enabled and covered up clerical sexual abuse under federal racketeering laws, called RICO statutes, which primarily are used against organized crime like the mafia.
The state investigations have already spurred thousands of allegations of sexual abuse as well as some arrests.
The office of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told the Register that the state’s clergy-abuse hotline has received more than 540 calls since it was created in September 2018 as part of a task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy in the state’s dioceses.
Their investigation secured the guilty plea of Father Thomas Ganley, 63, of Phillipsburg, New Jersey. After an accusation was made through the hotline, Father Ganley was investigated by the task force and pleaded guilty in April to second-degree sexual assault, admitting that he engaged in sexual acts with a teenage girl in the 1990s, when she was 16 or 17 years old and he had supervisory authority over her.
“Our message today is that we will move swiftly and decisively to secure justice for survivors,” Grewal said in a statement. “Two days after this victim called our hotline, Ganley was arrested — three months later, he pleaded guilty and faces prison.”
“This case was not time-barred, even though it is 25 years old, and where a prosecution is no longer viable, we will work equally hard to determine if the Church was aware of the abuse but failed to take action or prevent it from recurring, which will be the subject of a state grand jury presentment and report,” Grewal added. “We are determined to expose past wrongs and seek justice for survivors in whatever form is possible.”
Father Ganley served as a parochial vicar at St. Philip and St. James Catholic Church in Phillipsburg and was a chaplain at Warren General Hospital before his arrest in January. The Diocese of Metuchen made a statement following the arrest, stating that “the victim just came forward to prosecutors as an adult with an allegation of abuse that occurred while a minor in the early 1990s, which Father Ganley has reportedly admitted to law enforcement. As per Church protocol, he would then be removed from the priesthood. The diocese has never received an accusation of sexual abuse nor misconduct in the past regarding Father Ganley.”
In Michigan, five men who served as Catholic priests were charged with 21 counts of sex abuse in May. Four of the five alleged victims were minors. Attorney General Dana Nessel arrested a sixth priest in July as a result of a tip from the Archdiocese of Detroit. Father Joseph (Jack) Baker was charged with “one count of criminal sexual conduct, first degree — sexual penetration with a person under 13.” He had served as a pastor at St. Perpetua parish in Waterford, Michigan, since 2008.
“Our clergy-abuse investigative team is working day and night to review the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and files seized from all seven of Michigan’s dioceses last fall,” Nessel said in a statement on the arrest. “At the same time, we continue to receive calls daily from victims who know we will listen to them, believe in them and investigate their allegations. They deserve nothing less than our very best.”
Former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan released the preliminary findings from her office’s investigation in December and claimed 690 priests have been accused of sexual misconduct, a much higher number than the 185 clergy listed at the time by six dioceses. Some of those allegations go back decades, and Madigan did not provide information on how they were deemed credible, stressing that her findings were “preliminary.”
“We expect to add no further names at this point. We think the list is a complete list of all priests, of all clergy who have worked in the archdiocese who have substantiated claims,” William Kunkel, the general counsel for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune in response.
Her successor, Attorney General Kwame Raoul, recently met with Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich as the investigation continued. Raoul initially stated that he was prepared to issue subpoenas to Church leaders in Chicago, Joliet, Rockford, Peoria, Springfield and Belleville if they did not cooperate, but reportedly commented on Aug. 20 that “no subpoenas have been necessary — although information hasn’t all come at the same speed. It’s taking prodding at some point and asking more questions.”
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey filed a lawsuit in March against the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, claiming that the diocese “advertised a safe learning environment in its schools while employing personnel who had been convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse” under retired Bishop Michael Bransfield, who is under investigation by the Vatican for sexual harassment and financial misconduct.
The diocese rejected the claims in Morrissey’s lawsuit “that the diocese is not wholly committed to the protection of children, as reflected in its rigorous safe-environment program, the foundation of which is a zero-tolerance policy for any cleric, employee or volunteer credibly accused of abuse.”
The diocese also contended that “some of the allegations of misconduct contained in the attorney general’s complaint occurred more than 50 years ago, and some are not accurately described.” It is seeking to dismiss the complaint.
Morrissey said in an interview recently that the diocese has failed to make relevant documents available to his office, despite subpoenas, and the lack of transparency on the part of the diocese “disappointed me as the state’s attorney general, and it disappointed me as a Catholic.”
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office has also complained of a lack of transparency. However, the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Lincoln said that the only things they have not turned over are psychiatric evaluations, medical records and confidential settlement agreements due to privacy laws.
The Church’s Approach
Russell Shaw, a Catholic author who served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987, told the Register that “the only rational way to proceed” in these investigations by the state attorneys general “is to get all the relevant information on the record as quickly and completely as possible — as should have been done years ago, of course.”
As to the wider effect these investigations will have on the Church, Shaw said he has “heard anecdotal reports that the continuing investigations and disclosures are hurting the Church badly in regard to Mass attendance and financial contributions in some places, and perhaps many.”
Shaw advocated greater transparency from Church hierarchy and more inclusion of the laity amid these investigations.
“In the face of bad news, it appears that the people in charge are resorting to the typically clericalist response of circling the wagons and doing their best to keep the facts from everybody else, including — as always — the Catholic laity,” he said. “When, I wonder, will they learn that the right response — right in itself and also right at a time when the support of the laity is urgently needed — is to treat laypeople as partners in this thing called Church?”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.