Friday, September 07, 2018

In the Northeast, The "Dragnet" Spreads

While prosecutors in several states have moved toward new investigations of abuse and its cover-up in the wake of last month's Pennsylvania grand jury report, Thursday brought not only the most significant legal developments since the historic probe's 900-page findings were released, but arguably of the US' entire two-decade abuse crisis.

In a watershed double hit separated by a matter of hours, after the Associated Press reported that the New York Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, had subpoenaed the relevant personnel and settlement files of the state's eight dioceses (New York, Albany, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Rockville Centre and Syracuse), New Jersey's top prosecutor, Gurbir Grewal, announced a task force set to culminate in a statewide grand jury covering its five local churches (Newark, Camden, Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton).

Given the populations at hand – not to mention the confluence of both in the US' largest media market – the twin probes will extend the current crisis' ongoing shadow over the church far beyond the Tri-State region. What's more, the scope of the individual processes – likely to entail tens of thousands of documents and scores of witnesses – are virtually certain to extend over several years.

Overseen by a judge and armed with sweeping powers, while the statutes governing grand juries vary from state to state, most are prohibited from extending beyond two or three years, and require an annual renewal by the courts during the process as a safeguard against prosecutorial excess. That said, as New York laws don't allow for a statewide panel to conduct a probe and levy charges, Underwood's prior announcement of a "civil investigation" – ostensibly similar to her predecessors' sprawling looks into financial crimes by Wall Street's leading banks – is reportedly to be carried out in "partnership" with the district attorneys of the Empire State's 62 counties, who have already pledged their cooperation as their areas of jurisdiction require it.

In terms of the wider church, the New York probe immediately becomes the largest and most prominent civil inquest the US church has ever faced. And well beyond the reality of its spread across the third-largest state (where Catholics comprise roughly a third of the population), there's the prominence of the marquee outpost now under investigation: the nation's second-largest diocese – the 2.6 million-member archdiocese which the Vatican has long deemed the "capital of the world."

Home to a cardinal almost without interruption for 150 years – and usually American Catholicism's most visible figure in the nation's life, at that – the prospect of successive archbishops of New York being revealed as kingpins of a cover-up would have a tidal impact in the church history department. Yet in both New York and New Jersey, an even bigger concern in the present involves the hierarchy's ongoing efforts to beat back retroactive suspensions of the civil statute of limitations – the so-called "window" laws allowing victims to sue regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred. While several New York dioceses have rolled out mediation programs which compensate survivors from any period through an internal process in lieu of litigation, as in the wake of the Pennsylvania report, the findings of the new probes would likely galvanize public advocacy for changes to the laws governing abuse suits, and with it the specter of eye-popping settlements or judgments on damages.

On another front, with now-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick's personal history already in tatters following this summer's allegations of the ex-cardinal's abuse of at least two minors, on top of revelations of serial misconduct and harassment involving seminarians and young priests, the Jersey probe will visit another chapter of the disgraced prelate's legacy: his handling of cases as bishop of Metuchen (1981-86) and archbishop of Newark (1986-2000). At the same time, the New York inquest – its precise timespan unclear – could similarly delve into McCarrick's role in treating allegations as auxiliary bishop and priest-secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke, by long tradition the Gotham Chancery's most powerful post after the archbishop himself.

All told, attorneys general have already opened similar investigations or reviews of historic abuse files in Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska, but even more appear likely to come. In a statement upon yesterday's dual announcements, the Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro – who oversaw the landmark statewide probe – said his office had received requests for information from "more than a dozen" of his peers around the country, as well as "a senior official from the Department of Justice": a revelation which hints at the staggering possibility of a national investigation, backed by the unlimited reach and resources of the federal government.

In the three weeks since Shapiro rolled out the damning findings of the two-year probe he oversaw, his office's hotline has reportedly received another 600 allegations, leading to a reconfiguration of the Attorney General's staff to handle the fresh torrent of claims.

While the bulk of the new reports have yet to be shared with the dioceses, as each of the six probed Chanceries have directly learned of new cases since the grand jury's release, last week the diocese of Pittsburgh – in terms of perception, the hardest hit locale by the Pennsylvania findings – announced the removal of three more priests amid recent allegations.