Missouri becomes first state to announce investigation into alleged church abuses after Pennsylvania report
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said this week that his office will investigate allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in the St. Louis area, launching an independent inquiry in a region that is home to more than a half-million Catholics.
This review makes Missouri the first state to publicly announce such an inquiry after the searing Pennsylvania grand jury report released last week, which documented a wave of abuses and coverups spanning decades and involving more than 300 Catholic priests.
It remains unclear whether other states have launched new efforts to investigate alleged abuses after the Pennsylvania report. While other states may be conducting or considering beginning investigations, none has said so publicly. The Washington Post reached out to the offices of attorneys general in 49 states and the District of Columbia after the Pennsylvania report was released to survey their responses. Authorities in most of these offices either said that they could not comment on potential investigations or that their offices lacked the authority to immediately act and investigate local cases.
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The Archdiocese of St. Louis said Thursday that it welcomed the review in Missouri and that the examination was being conducted at its request. St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson said he knew the public was calling on the attorney general's office to investigate the Catholic Church and that "we have nothing to hide," adding that he was inviting Hawley to review the church's files on anyone who has been accused of sexual abuse.
"The protection of children from criminal abuse is one of my office's top priorities," Hawley wrote in a letter to Carlson on Thursday. "I look forward to cooperating with you to ensure that the children of the Archdiocese of St. Louis are fully protected from any threat of abuse."
The archdiocese says it serves more than 511,000 Catholics, or about 1 in 5 people in the St. Louis region. Hawley called the archdiocese's cooperation "essential" to the review and said his office would put together "a team of experienced attorneys and career prosecutors to ensure a vigorous, searching and comprehensive inquiry."
He said this team would review documents as well as interview alleged victims and people who may have witnessed alleged abuses. Hawley's office had told The Post before announcing the review that it lacked the ability to investigate "allegations of this kind of criminal activity," saying that was the jurisdiction of the local prosecutor. On Friday, his office said that it will release a public report when its review has been completed and that anything deemed a potential criminal violation will be sent to local prosecutors.
The grand jury report released by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro last week - which detailed graphic accounts of abuse and assailed "church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all" - sent shock waves around the world. Pope Francis this week wrote an unprecedented letter to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics in which he said the church had failed to deal with "crimes" against children. "We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them," he wrote.
Experts say the report could help drive reforms to statutes of limitations, which Shapiro said hindered the ability of law enforcement officials to pursue charges in cases the grand jury examined. Survivors have called for more reviews nationwide. The group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in a statement this week that it was calling for "every state's attorney general [to] follow Pennsylvania's lead and launch formal investigations."
While many officials in states from Alaska to Alabama declined to comment this week on whether any investigations were underway, many others across the country said that statutes vary from state to state, granting attorneys general widely varying authorities and capabilities for criminal law enforcement and prosecution. (A handful of states did not respond or could not be reached before publication.)
In Ohio - where roughly 1 in 5 adults are Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey - the office of Attorney General Mike DeWine said an investigation would have to originate on a local level rather than with the state's chief legal officer.
"Ohio's laws are different than Pennsylvania's," Dan Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine, wrote in an email. "In Ohio, as a home-rule state, original criminal jurisdiction to initiate such investigations resides with local law enforcement."
Tierney said that DeWine would need a local prosecutor's request to impanel a grand jury like the one used in Pennsylvania, and that as of this week, no such request had been received.
Representatives for several other attorneys general similarly said investigations must either be conducted on a local level entirely or be referred by such authorities to state officials. The office of the Iowa attorney general said it did not have an investigation underway, writing that officials in that office "don't have the specific statutory authority to call a statewide investigative grand jury."
Some state attorneys general pledged to work with local prosecutors on the issue.
"Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well," Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York state Attorney General Barbara Underwood, said in a statement about the Pennsylvania report. "The Attorney General has directed her Criminal Division leadership to reach out to local District Attorneys - who are the only entities that currently have the power to convene a grand jury to investigate these matters - in order to establish a potential partnership on this issue."
Representatives in other states noted that in comparison with Pennsylvania, their attorneys general had relatively limited power or had different abilities to act. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina attorney general said he "does not have criminal jurisdiction, which means he is unable to conduct such an investigation or call a grand jury." In Texas, a spokesman for the state attorney general said that he "does not have original criminal jurisdiction to prosecute criminal cases" - save election code violations - and can "only initiate investigations and prosecutions at the request of local county and district attorneys."
Connecticut's attorney general is "one of the few attorneys general in the country to lack any criminal law authority (outside of certain home improvement contractor violations)," an official with that office wrote. The chief state's attorney and state's attorneys in local districts conduct criminal prosecutions there. The office of the chief state's attorney in Connecticut said it did not have an investigation open, nor would it explain why.
Some states pointed to previous prosecutions that have stemmed from alleged sexual abuse. Those include Delaware, where a former priest was indicted on charges he raped a preteen girl; he died before standing trial. Others highlighted previous investigations that have been carried out, such as in Arizona and Maine. At least 10 grand juries and attorneys general have issued such reports in the past, according to BishopAccountability.org.
Shapiro, Pennsylvania's attorney general, told NPR after the grand jury report was released that he has had "many private conversations . . . with other state attorneys general and prosecutors in other states who have expressed interest in doing the kind of work we did in Pennsylvania."
He declined to say which states, although two offices contacted by The Post - the attorneys general in Kentucky and New Mexico - confirmed that they were in touch with Shapiro's office.
"There have been successful prosecutions in similar cases in jurisdictions in Kentucky where the offense took place," J. Michael Brown, a deputy attorney general, said in a statement to The Post. "We are currently in contact with the Pennsylvania Attorney General who is updating us on his actions, and we are looking to see what statutory tools we might have to address any similar issues."
David Carl, a spokesman for New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, said that Balderas "is very troubled by" the report's depictions of "a broader conspiracy to hide priests or cover up sexual abuse resulting in victimization of New Mexicans." (The Pennsylvania report named several priests who had served in New Mexico and notes at least one instance of a cleric who "admitted to the indecent touching of [a] boy" in New Mexico.)
Carl said his office was working with Shapiro "to identify gaps in legal protections and will increase efforts to prioritize strengthening laws and reporting requirements aimed at preventing these large scale tragedies moving forward."