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Federal authorities launch probe into Pa. Catholic church

The subpoenas cast a wide net seeking records and testimony.

Tina Shelton of Havertown marches with her "Time's Up" sign to a planning meeting after a prayer service and vigil opposite Cathedral Basilica SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia in September.
Tina Shelton of Havertown marches with her "Time's Up" sign to a planning meeting after a prayer service and vigil opposite Cathedral Basilica SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia in September.Read moreElizabeth Robertson/Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG — U.S. prosecutors have subpoenaed every Roman Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania for a trove of records, opening a potentially unprecedented inquiry into whether decades of clergy sex abuse and the ensuing cover-up constituted any federal crimes.

Nearly all of the eight dioceses acknowledged Thursday that they had either received subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia or been contacted by authorities. None would elaborate on the request, and prosecutors declined to confirm or deny the existence of the investigation.

But sources familiar with the matter, though not authorized to publicly discuss it, said agents were looking at a swath of potential crimes, from possession of child pornography to transporting children across state lines for the purposes of engaging in sex.

The Associated Press, which first reported on the subpoenas, said investigators also want to scour records related to the dioceses' organizational charts, finances, insurance coverage, and clergy assignments, as well as the confidential personnel files that have become known as the church's "secret archives."

The sweeping federal inquiry comes after the scathing grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, and as the Catholic Church worldwide finds itself plunged into further turmoil over its handling of sex-abuse claims.

The grand jury report, made public in August, detailed decades of abuse and cover-ups, and the fallout has been swift and relentless for both U.S. church leaders and the Vatican. Just last week, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who was singled out in the report as having helped protect pedophile priests while bishop of Pittsburgh.

While dioceses' handling of sex-abuse allegations have been investigated by local or state prosecutors around the country, they have largely escaped federal scrutiny. A 2009 probe of the Los Angeles Archdiocese ended without charges.

But the Pennsylvania probe could signal that the U.S. Department of Justice is willing to use its resources to embark on an expansive criminal investigation of dioceses across an entire state.

"I've never heard of such a thing before," Terence McKiernan, president of, which tracks and archives abuse scandals in Catholic dioceses, said Thursday.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, which ran the investigation that culminated in the grand jury report, would not comment on news of the federal subpoenas. Joe Grace, spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, referred calls to William M. McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. A spokesperson for McSwain would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

But the dioceses didn't dispute their contact with federal authorities.

"The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has received a subpoena issued by a federal grand jury, which requires the production of certain documents," said its spokesperson, Ken Gavin. "The archdiocese will cooperate with the United States Department of Justice in this matter."

Federal authorities served the subpoena on Oct. 9, Gavin said.

The Dioceses of Harrisburg, Scranton, Erie, Greensburg, and Allentown also released statements saying they had been contacted by federal investigators, and were intending to comply or were consulting with their lawyers. The other dioceses are Altoona-Johnstown and Pittsburgh.

The grand jury report chronicled how more than 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades, and how church officials systematically covered it up.

"All of [the victims] were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all," the report says. "Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible not only did nothing: They hid it all."

Shapiro has said that his office's investigation drew upon testimony from dozens of witnesses, and relied heavily on the "secret archives," which included clergy sex-abuse complaints. Those records, the Attorney General's Office said, detailed how church officials ignored or hid allegations while shuffling abusers from parish to parish, sometimes across state lines. Lawsuits filed by accusers often ended in strict confidentiality agreements.

Because nearly all the allegations happened too long ago to prosecute, the report fueled furious debate over whether to allow a two-year reprieve in the civil statute of limitations so that older victims of child sexual abuse could sue their attackers and the institutions that covered up the abuse.

That proposal was endorsed by Shapiro, the investigative grand jury, the state House of Representatives, and Senate Democrats as well as victims and their advocates. But Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, until recently opposed any retroactive change in the law.

Late Wednesday, a compromise plan was floated that would have created a state-run compensation fund and opened a window for older victims to sue their attackers, but not the institutions that may have shielded their abusers. But the plan, put forth by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), was swiftly denounced as protecting the Catholic Church, and the bill died on the last scheduled voting day of the legislative session.

Liz Navratil of the Harrisburg Bureau contributed to this article.