News that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania and the Diocese of Buffalo in New York for their handling of clergy sex abuse is as significant as it is overdue. No one can predict the outcome, but the investigations provide hope for accountability and transparency for the Catholic Church and healing for survivors.
The involvement of the feds ups the ante in the current swirl of public outrage over, and secular investigations into, sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and the Church’s cover-up. In Pennsylvania, the federal investigation comes on the heels of the August release of a damning grand jury report that documented more than 300 abuser priests and 1,000 victims in Pennsylvania dioceses going back decades, and cover-up of it by the hierarchy. The Diocese of Buffalo federal investigation comes after the New York attorney general subpoenaed the diocese in the wake of revelations of dozens of abuser priests and cover-up by the diocese.
In both states, the federal investigation comes after their legislatures recently voted down legislation that would have provided a window for survivors whose cases are barred by the statute of limitations to bring civil lawsuits against their abuser and the entities for whom they worked. These windows are vital because they lead to public disclosure of clergy perpetrator names and secret files, which results in transparency, increased public safety, and healing for survivors who would feel less alone and more able to take back power stolen from them by their abusers. The failure of the New York and Pennsylvania legislatures came after intense lobbying against the legislation by the Catholic Church and other organizations.
In light of this, the federal investigations will test the hierarchy’s purported commitment to survivor support, transparency and turning investigative control over to secular authorities, to which it has given a lot of lip service recently after decades of secretly covering up abuse with impunity. Hopefully the federal government – which has largely stayed away from the Catholic clergy abuse scandal – will be able to use the imposing tools it has available to force the hierarchy to come clean. The investigations reportedly include subpoenas for church documents and evidence of cover-up, for example.
It’s worth a shot.