The Department of Justice has launched an investigation of child sex abuse within Pennsylvania's Roman Catholic Church, sending subpoenas to dioceses across the state seeking private files and records to explore the possibility that priests and bishops violated federal law in cases that go back decades, NPR has learned.
In what is thought to be the first such inquiry into the church's clergy sex abuse scandal, authorities have issued subpoenas to look into possible violations of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, also known as RICO, according to a person close to the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The source did not elaborate on what other potential federal crimes could be part of the inquiry, which could take years and is now only in its early stages.
RICO historically has been used to dismantle organized-crime syndicates.
Officials at six of Pennsylvania's eight dioceses — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Scranton and Harrisburg — have confirmed to NPR that they have recently received and are currently complying with federal subpoenas for information. The two remaining dioceses did not return requests for comment.
Supporters of those who have been victimized by church leaders applauded federal prosecutors for initiating a criminal investigation into one of the state's most powerful institutions.
"There is a consensus rising, which is this just has to stop. And it won't stop if prosecutors just sit on their hands," said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who also runs Child USA, a group that advocates for victims of child sex abuse. "The federal government has been silent on these issues to date, and it's high time they got to work."
The federal investigation follows a sweeping grand jury report released in August by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office that found that more than 1,000 minors were abused by some 300 priests across Pennsylvania over a 70-year period.
A dozen other states also have opened investigations into clergy sex abuse.
Fallout from the Pennsylvania report has included renaming Catholic schools that honored now-disgraced clergy and the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl, after being accused of covering up sexual abuse during his time as bishop of Pittsburgh.
Numerous other church officials, the report found, participated in a systemic cover-up of the abuse that included shuffling priests to other parishes and, in some cases, obstructing police investigations. However, because some of the allegations are decades old, many of the accused are now deceased.
Because of Pennsylvania's statute of limitations, just two of the priests named in the report were charged as a result of the state-led investigation.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, says that the federal statute of limitations could allow for more time to prosecute individuals who are now out of reach under state laws.
"This could bring the full force of the federal government to bear. It's potentially enormous," he said.
The subpoenas were first reported by the Associated Press, which said investigators sought to examine organizational charts, insurance coverage, clergy assignments and confidential documents stored in what has become known as the church's "Secret Archives."
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain authorized the subpoenas. A spokeswoman for McSwain declined to comment.
A Justice Department representative in Washington, D.C., would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the investigation.
Legal experts said accruing enough evidence to build a RICO case against the Roman Catholic Church — basically treating the influential institution as a crime syndicate — will be a burdensome task.
Hamilton of Child USA, for one, said she thinks using federal RICO as a weapon against the church would be a stretch, since the 1970 law is not designed to deal with problems such as sex abuse and other personal injury cases. Instead, she said, most RICO cases involve financial crimes. "I hope that they can find a way to make it fit, but it will be challenging," she said.
However, Hamilton said a federal statute called the Mann Act, which prohibits moving people across state lines for the purpose of illegal sex acts, could be a more promising legal avenue.
"As we know, there have been plenty of priests who took children across state lines," she said.
Tobias, the law professor who specializes in federal courts, said whatever comes of the investigation, the issuing of the subpoenas has likely sent a jolt across the country. If the inquiry of the Pennsylvania church results in criminal charges, it could be used as a road map for federal prosecutors hoping to pursue abusers in other states.
"Pennsylvania might be the first state where the federal government does this," Tobias said. "But then they build on the lessons they've learned there, as DOJ often does when they have a national issue, and go to the other states and use that template again."