New York and New Jersey launched new investigations into the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of clergy sex abuse allegations Thursday as the number of similar inquiries around the country continues to grow.
In New York, the state’s attorney general issued subpoenas to all eight of the state’s Catholic dioceses seeking any and all documents pertaining to allegations, findings from internal church investigations and payments to victims, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the investigation but not authorized to speak publicly.
In New Jersey, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a new task force that will look at how abuse allegations were handled in the seven dioceses in that state.
The investigations come three weeks after a grand jury report found rampant sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by about 300 priests in Pennsylvania since the 1940s. The report accused senior church officials of orchestrating a systematic cover-up to protect the church from scandal. Attorneys general in Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri have since announced investigations into allegations of clergy abuse or cover ups in local dioceses.
Church leaders in New York confirmed receipt of the subpoenas Thursday, and vowed to work with Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s civil investigation — as well as any potential criminal investigations to come. The subpoenas were issued to the Archdiocese of New York in New York City as well as the dioceses of Albany, Brooklyn, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Ogdensburg and Rockville Centre.
“It is not a surprise to us that the attorney general would look to begin a civil investigation, and she will find the archdiocese of New York, and the other seven dioceses in the state, ready and eager to work together with her in the investigation,” New York archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.
Underwood’s office is pursuing a civil investigation into the church’s response to abuse reports and has also reached out to local prosecutors, who are authorized to convene grand juries or pursue criminal investigations. In New York the attorney general doesn’t have that power, so the involvement of local district attorneys would be critical to any criminal prosecutions.
“I’m elated, but my elation is tempered by how long it has taken to get here,” said Steve Jimenez, a leading advocate for survivors in New York who says a Roman Catholic brother repeatedly assaulted him when he was a child attending Catholic school in Brooklyn.
Jimenez said he hopes investigators can answer a question that’s haunted him for decades: “What did the diocese of Brooklyn know and when did they know it?”
Even if investigators do find evidence of past abuse, many victims in New York may have little legal recourse. That’s because the state currently has one of the strictest laws in the nation when it comes to allowing victims to sue or press criminal charges.
Jimenez and other advocates have for years urged lawmakers to relax the state’s statute of limitations and create a one-year window for civil suits now barred by the law. The bill has repeatedly been blocked by the Republican leaders of the state Senate, but Jimenez said he and others will keep trying to get legislation passed.
Underwood and Grewal also announced hotlines for individuals to report allegations of clergy abuse. The numbers are 855-363-6548 in New Jersey and 800-771-7755 in New Jersey. New York has also set up a confidential online complaint form that can be found at ag.ny.gov/ClergyAbuse.
“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover ups in the dioceses,” Underwood, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well – and we are going to do everything in our power to bring them the justice they deserve.”
Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger proactively asked Albany County District Attorney David Soares to review his diocese’s records on Thursday, before the subpoena from Underwood was received.
“We have to do what is right, even if it is not easy,” Scharfenberger wrote in a letter to parishioners announcing his request.
Florida attorney Michael Dolce is an expert on abuse cases and successfully pushed lawmakers in his state to relax the statute of limitations on civil and criminal child sex abuse allegations. He summed up Underwood’s decision to subpoena the state’s dioceses as “huge and welcomed.” Dolce, of the firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, is also abuse survivor.
“It shows a determination to see if what happened in Pennsylvania also happened in New York,” he said. “I shudder to think about what they will find.”
New Jersey’s task force will be led by Robert Laurino, a former Essex Country prosecutor. The panel will have the power to establish a grand jury and issue subpoenas.
The state’s Catholic Conference said it welcomes the investigation and would “fully cooperate.” The conference, which represents the state’s bishops, stressed that since 2002 the church has complied with a memorandum of understanding with the attorney general and all 21 county prosecutors in New Jersey that every abuse complaint would be forwarded to law enforcement. “One thing I want to emphasize is that New Jersey is not Pennsylvania – more than the Delaware River separates us,” said conference executive director Patrick Brannigan.