DETROIT – Hundreds of boxes. Millions of records. From Michigan to New Mexico, attorneys general are sifting through files on clergy sex abuse this month, seized through search warrants and subpoenas at dozens of archdioceses.
They're looking to prosecute, and not just priests. If the boxes lining the hallways of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's offices contain enough evidence, she said, she is considering using state racketeering laws usually reserved for organized crime. Prosecutors in Michigan are even volunteering on weekends to get through all the material.
For decades, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were largely left to police their own. But this week, as American bishops gather for a conference in Baltimore to confront the reignited sex-abuse crisis, they're facing the most scrutiny ever from secular law enforcement.
An Associated Press query of more than 20 state and federal prosecutors last week found they are looking for legal means to hold higher ups in the church accountable. Thousands of people have called hotlines nationwide, and five priests have recently been arrested.
“Some of the things I've seen in the files makes your blood boil, to be honest with you,” Nessel said. “When you're investigating gangs or the Mafia, we would call some of this conduct a criminal enterprise.”
If a prosecutor applies racketeering laws, also known as RICO, against church leaders, bishops and other church officials could face criminal consequences for enabling predator priests.
Monsignor G. Michael Bugarin, who handles sex abuse accusations for the Detroit Archdiocese, said they too are committed to ending abuse and cover-ups. Bugarin said they cooperate closely with law enforcement, and that doesn't change if the attorney general is considering organized crime charges.
“The law is the law, so I think we just have to respect what the current law is,” he said.
Some defenders of the church bristle at the notion of increased legal action, saying the Catholic institution is being singled out by overzealous prosecutors.
A spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to comment on law enforcement investigations into specific dioceses across the country, instead referring all such inquiries to the dioceses themselves.
Seventeen years after U.S. bishops passed a “zero tolerance” policy against sexually abusive priests, they too are considering new measures for accountability over abuse. And last month Pope Francis issued a global order requiring all Catholic priests and nuns to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups to church authorities.
In a presentation Tuesday before the bishops' conference, Dr. Francesco Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, recommended establishing lay commissions to review allegations made against bishops.
“Bishops should be held to the same standards as other clerics,” Cesareo said.
In response to a question about reporting allegations to police, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, chair of the Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations Committee, said bishops are required to follow the law.
The attorneys general investigations follow a Pennsylvania investigation that documented decades of clergy abuse and cover-ups, thrusting the Catholic Church's sex assault scandal back into the mainstream last summer.
Some U.S. attorneys general followed up with calls to Pennsylvania.
While most have not launched public investigations, more than a dozen have. Many of those opened telephone hotlines or online questionnaires for confidential complaints.
Pennsylvania has been flooded with calls, some 1,800 from victims and families over the last three years. New Jersey and Michigan's tip lines have received about 500 calls each, while Illinois has received nearly 400 calls and emails. In Iowa, 11 people who identified themselves as victims and their relatives came forward in the hotline and questionnaire's first three days.
In contrast, Delaware's attorney general tip line has had four calls since November, a spokesperson said. Officials in Vermont said they are aware of dozens of victims.
While priests have been prosecuted in the past, scrutiny of church authorities has been relatively rare. Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn, convicted in 2012 for failing to report child pornography on a cleric's laptop, is the only American prelate convicted for his role in aiding a priest.
Attorneys general who are investigating use a range of tools. Michigan executed search warrants, which means police raid church offices. Delaware, West Virginia and Nebraska have issued subpoenas, making a legal request for the records. Michigan has arrested five priests, New Jersey officials have arrested one priest, and the attorney general of Washington, D.C., is weighing civil charges.
Iowa Attorney General spokesman Lynn Hicks said it's premature to say whether they'd use their far-reaching RICO statute, but that nothing is off the table.
And in Virginia, spokesman Michael Kelly said they are investigating not only priests, but also “whether leadership in the dioceses may have covered up or abetted any such crimes.”
Iowa's Attorney General Tom Miller said that he was spurred into action a few weeks ago after his office met with abuse survivors.
One of those survivors, Tim Lennon, said his abuser's bishop knew he was hurting children and kept moving him along.
“The priest who had raped and abused me when I was 12 had gotten caught at three parishes before they moved him to my parish,” said Lennon, now board president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Statute of limitation rules differ and are being tested. In Michigan, for example, the clock stops if a priest moved out of state for a period.
In recent years, civil lawsuits have used racketeering laws leading to large settlements. Delaware attorney Stephen Neuberger, who has successfully sued the church on behalf of clergy abuse victims, said questions inevitably arise about church authorities covering up and facilitating for accused priests. He said organized crime statutes seem appropriate.
“It's not piling on,” he said. “In fact I think it's long overdue.”
Southern Baptists update abuse rules
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Confronting an unprecedented sex-abuse crisis, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention's national meeting voted Tuesday to make it easier to expel churches that mishandle abuse cases.
The Rev. J.D. Greear, president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, said the SBC faced a “defining moment” that would shape the church for generations to come.
Sex abuse already was a high-profile issue at the SBC's 2018 national meeting in Dallas, after which Greear formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront the problem. Greear was unanimously re-elected to a second term on Tuesday.