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In wake of Pa. grand jury report on Catholic clergy abuse, multiple states launch investigations

New Jersey on Thursday became the latest state to announce an inquiry into allegations of child rape and its coverup.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal center) is among a group of top prosecutors nationwide to launch their own investigations into allegations of Catholic clergy sexual abuse. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal center) is among a group of top prosecutors nationwide to launch their own investigations into allegations of Catholic clergy sexual abuse. TOM GRALISH / Staff PhotographerRead moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania grand jury's damning report on child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has prompted a chain of similar investigations nationwide, with New Jersey on Thursday becoming the latest state to announce it is launching an effort to examine allegations.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said he was forming a task force to investigate abuse allegations as well as any cover-up attempts. He said he had been "deeply troubled" by the Pennsylvania findings.

"The report revealed that sexual assaults on children – and efforts to cover up such assaults — were far more widespread in Pennsylvania than we ever thought possible," Grewal said in a statement. "We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here. If it did, we will take action against those responsible."

The New Jersey Catholic Conference, which works closely with the state's bishops, pledged to "cooperate fully" with the inquiry, saying doing so was "essential to restoring faith and trust," according to a statement from its executive director, Patrick Brannigan.

Grewal's announcement came on the same day that the New York Attorney General's Office subpoenaed all eight  Roman Catholic dioceses in the state and said it was creating a clergy abuse hotline and online complaint form for victims to report alleged sexual abuse. The move comes as Attorney General Barbara Underwood conducts a civil investigation into how the state's dioceses and other church entities "reviewed and potentially covered up allegations of extensive sexual abuse of minors."

"The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover-ups in the dioceses," she said. "Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well."

The Archdiocese of New York confirmed Thursday that it had received a subpoena, saying in a statement that it and the other seven dioceses in the state were "ready and eager" to cooperate with Underwood.

Pennsylvania's grand jury report documented allegations of rampant child sexual abuse and cover-ups — spanning seven decades — in six Catholic dioceses across the state. The report found more than 1,000 victims allegedly abused by more than 300 priests, although the grand jury said there were likely more victims and abusers.

Citing Pennsylvania's statute of limitations, the grand jury said it was not able to charge most of the priests and other church leaders implicated in the report. The Attorney General's Office did charge two priests as part of its wide-ranging, two-year-long investigation.

The report's release prompted yet another national reckoning within the Catholic Church and has reignited debate over whether states should allow older victims to sue over decades-old abuse.

In the last three weeks, more than a dozen attorneys general and a "senior official" at the U.S. Department of Justice have contacted Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office. Some of those officials were seeking advice on how to conduct similar inquiries.

"Our work in Pennsylvania has spurred a movement," Shapiro said in a statement. "The time for institutions to place their own interests above protecting our children is over."

Earlier this week, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas demanded that the state's three dioceses both preserve and turn over records detailing any child abuse allegations and the church's response to them.

In his letters to bishops, Balderas said Pennsylvania's grand jury report had revealed that some of the accused clergy members had ties to New Mexico.

In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said late last month that she was reaching out to the state's Catholic dioceses because she wanted to review their records relating to clergy sexual abuse. Like Balderas, she said Pennsylvania's report cited at least seven priests with connections to Illinois.

And also late last month, Nebraska's attorney general asked three Catholic dioceses to turn over any files, dating back 40 years, containing allegations of child sexual abuse, according to the Omaha World-Herald. Also last month, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced that his office planned to review the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

In conducting its investigation, Pennsylvania's Attorney General's Office had legal powers that prosecutors in some other states do not have. For instance, Pennsylvania law allows investigating grand juries to produce reports detailing questionable activity even when criminal charges cannot be brought.

That very mechanism is now under fire as an intense legal battle unfolds over the grand jury's report — even though a version of it has now been made public.

Shapiro's office released the hotly contested document on Aug. 14 — but portions of it were redacted because a group of unnamed clergy members are fighting its full release, contending that it contains inaccuracies about them or unfairly harms their clients' reputations.

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Sept. 26. The legal community is closely watching the case, which has the potential to defang the grand jury system, reining in its ability to issue reports.

The legislature, too, is weighing whether to alter grand jury powers. It is also gearing up for a bruising fight over statute of limitations reform when it returns to session later this month.

The debate is expected to center around whether to create a two-year window that would allow victims who have aged out of the statute of limitations to sue.

Previous efforts to change the statute have been political landmines, and this year, the majority of seats in the state legislature are up for grabs in the November election.