Could The Catholic Church Face Federal Investigation Over Sex Abuse Cover-Up?

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Posted: Aug 31, 2018 5:30 PM
Could The Catholic Church Face Federal Investigation Over Sex Abuse Cover-Up?

According to a Pennyslvania attorney general, and if a national victims’ rights group gets their way, the federal government might soon be launching an investigation into the Catholic Church.

In a New York Times interview published Monday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro answered questions about Pennsylvania’s recently released grand jury report. The bombshell report, years in the making, implicated over 300 Catholic priests in the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children, over the course of decades.

The secret investigation began in 2016, before Shapiro was even sworn into office. He recalled being given the choice of whether or not to move forward with the case, saying “I made it clear I wanted the investigation to continue. I put the full force of our office into this investigation.”

During the course of the interview, the attorney general spoke out about Pope Francis, the Pennsylvania dioceses that attempted to shut down the investigation, and the attorneys general now following Pennsylvania’s lead, and potentially initiating their own respective investigations.

But it was Shapiro’s words about the Department of Justice’s interest in the case that are now making headlines among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

When asked if Jeff Sessions ought to open a federal grand jury investigation into allegations of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Attorney General Shapiro first attempted to deflect the question.

“I have spoken to a representative of the Department of Justice”, he replied. “Beyond that, I do not think it would be prudent for me to comment.”

But the reporter pressed Shapiro further, asking if the Department of Justice had ever reached out to him directly. The answer, according to Shapiro, was yes.

Shapiro then went on to reveal the timeline. He confirmed that he’d been contacted by the DOJ after, and related to, the release of the grand jury report.

Some are also speculating that the Department of Justice could potentially prosecute the Catholic Church, as an institution, under the RICO Act.

Passed by Congress in 1970, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) allows prosecutors to go after not just individuals for an alleged crime, but organized groups as well. Prior to the passage of the law, there was little that could be done to address the unique problem of organized crime.

And because the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church appear to also involve the covering up of sexual crimes against children, some wonder if RICO could be used “to go after the church hierarchy, holding it criminally responsible for the sins of the hundreds of priests who preyed on children, as outlined in the Pennsylvania grand jury report that found widespread abuse in a half-dozen of the state’s dioceses.”

But while a number of civil suits against the Catholic Church have resulted in large settlements paid to victims, there has never been an attempt to hold the institution criminally responsible.

Legal experts state that the federal criminal RICO statute does not cover personal injury crimes, and child abuse is not listed as one of the potential offenses. It is, however, possible that the civil provisions of the act could be invoked. Civil RICO cases filed against the Catholic Church in the past have been met with mixed success.

And that’s why, since the release of the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is pushing for an amendment to the RICO law. It would allow the federal government “to initiate a full-scale, nationwide investigation into the systemic rape and sexual violence, and cover-ups by the Catholic Church, and, where appropriate, bring criminal and/or civil proceedings against the hierarchy that enabled the violations.”

The Department of Justice has not yet responded to SNAP’s request for an amendment.