The U.S. Catholic Church is facing an unprecedented wave of sex abuse investigations

On Wednesday, Virginia became at least the 15th state where officials have announced a plan to investigate sex abuse allegations within the Catholic Church.
On Wednesday, Virginia became at least the 15th state where officials have announced a plan to investigate sex abuse allegations within the Catholic Church.

In the months since a Pennsylvania grand jury announced the names of more than 300 priests who’d abused at least 1,000 children, authorities across the United States have launched investigations of unprecedented scale into sex abuse within the U.S. Catholic Church.

On Wednesday, Virginia became at least the 15th state where officials have announced a plan to investigate sex abuse allegations within the Church. At the federal level, the Justice Department has subpoenaed records from at least seven of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses, the Associated Press reported last week, in a probe believed to be the first of its kind, according to the Survivors Network of those Abuse by Priests (SNAP).


"And it is long overdue,” David Clohessy, SNAP's former national director, told CNN.

The Pennsylvania grand jury’s report, which examined allegations of sexual abuse stretching back decades in six of the state’s dioceses, represents the most extensive government look at sex abuse within the U.S. Catholic Church yet.

“For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away,” the grand jury wrote in the report, which also detailed what its members dubbed the Catholic hierarchy’s “playbook for concealing the truth” about sexual misconduct. “Now we know the truth: It happened everywhere.”

So far, local officials in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Vermont, and Wyoming have all announced that they’re investigating sex abuse allegations involving local Catholic dioceses, or plan to do so, according to tallies by Vox and NBC News. Washington, D.C., is also launching a similar investigation, District Attorney Karl Racine said Tuesday, after two high-profile D.C. clerics resigned following accusations related to the Catholic sex abuse crisis.

Each probe varies in scope and method, thanks to state laws that can constrain police and district attorneys’ investigative powers. Louisiana District Attorney Attorney General Jeff Landry said last month that his office lacks the authority to launch a statewide investigation into potential abuse within the Catholic Church.


The federal probe in Pennsylvania, however, is taking an unusual approach to going after accused priests: issuing subpoenas aimed at determining whether the Catholic Church violated the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute by potentially organizing a cover-up of the abuse, NPR reported. That statute has historically targeted organized-crime groups, such as the mafia.

These inquiries will also take time; the grand jury in Pennsylvania spent 18 months investigating, and as of September, state officials were still embroiled in a fight over whether to release several redacted names from the original report. But the report did lead to a surge of sex abuse allegations: Within days of the its release, a Pennsylvania hotline dedicated to Catholic child sex abuse received more than 400 calls.

Even states that aren’t officially investigating Catholic dioceses have seen a surge of interest in exposing sex abuse. On Tuesday, a law firm released a report that named more than 200 California priests who the firm says were accused of sexual misconduct.

“This report is intended to raise awareness about the important issue of clerical sexual abuse, provide the public with vital information including assignment histories, and provide awareness to survivors,” the firm, Jeff Anderson & Associates PA, wrote in the report.


Former priest James Faluszczak, who says he was molested by a priest as a teenager, reacts as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

So far, the Catholic hierarchy has offered mixed responses to the growing number of investigations. Several dioceses pledged to help investigators. And in Anchorage, Alaska, the local diocese will even launch an independent commission to look into church records on sex abuse allegations. Pope Francis also released a 2,000-word open letter about sex abuse within the Catholic Church, but critics say he has yet to take serious steps to curb the misconduct. Six in 10 American Catholics say Francis is doing an “only fair” or “poor” job addressing the crisis, the Pew Research Center found last month.

After the Pennsylvania grand jury report accused Cardinal Donald Wuerl of allowing accused priests to remain in the ministry, Wuerl resigned as archbishop of Washington, D.C. In a letter to Wuerl at the time, Francis wrote, “You have sufficient elements to 'justify' your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes. However your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you."

After his resignation, Wuerl said he would be allowed to keep advising Francis about bishop appointments.

“They’re removing him [Wuerl] from this situation where people feel betrayed, but he’s still got all the power pretty much that he ever had,” Mary Pat Fox told the New York Times. Fox heads the Voice of the Faithful, an advocacy group that pushes for more accountability within the church. “It doesn’t sound like the pope has gone far enough at all,” she added.

Cover image: In this Oct. 20, 2010 file photo, Archbishop Donald Wuerl prays as he celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)