New York State has initiated an expansive investigation of the Catholic church, with the Attorney General's office subpoenaing each of the state's eight dioceses to determine whether or not they helped hide sexual abuse. New York A.G. Barbara Underwood announced the effort on Thursday, along with the creation of a reporting hotline and online complaint center for anyone who experienced sexual abuse as a minor, or witnessed sexual misconduct by a clergy member.
A source with knowledge of the investigation told the New York Times that the subpoenas—which come from the Charities Bureau within the A.G.'s office—extend to "secret or confidential church archives" and call for all information pertaining to sex abuse and the church's handling of it. The inquiry comes in the wake of a grand jury report that came out of Pennsylvania in August, cataloging more than seven decades' worth of misconduct the church deliberately covered up. In 1,400 pages of findings, Pennsylvania identified 1,000 child victims and 300 priests, although the actual numbers are likely much higher.
"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," Underwood said in a statement on Thursday. "Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well—and we are going to do everything in our power to bring them the justice they deserve."
Still, Underwood cautioned that the statute of limitations may have run out on some complainants. In New York State, child sex abuse survivors have until their 23rd birthdays to sue the abuser and file criminal charges (rape excepted), but must sue the institution before they turn 21.
"Make no mistake," Underwood's statement continued: "The only way that justice can fully and truly be served is for the legislature to finally pass the Child Victims Act," which would allow survivors to sue up until they turn 50, and extend the criminal charge deadline to 28. (The Roman Catholic church and Andrew Cuomo both bear some responsibility for the legislation's failure to pass.) Even if a tip doesn't lead to prosecution, Underwood's office emphasized, the information still helps the state gauge the full scope of the problem.
Archdiocese of New York spokesperson Joseph Zwilling said in a statement the nonprofit would be "ready and eager to work together with [Underwood] in the investigation."
"Since 2002, the archdiocese has shared with the state's 10 district attorneys all information they have sought concerning allegations of sexual abuse of minors, and has established excellent working relationships with each of them," Zwilling said. Albany bishop Edward Scharfenberger, meanwhile, called the subpoenas "necessary" in a letter to his parish on Thursday, according to the Washington Post.
"I believe a fully independent investigation, one coordinated by the District Attorney, is the only way forward," he said. "So many people have questions about transparency and about the process. We need a thorough review of our records in order to objectively answer those questions. Our goal is to build trust, demonstrate transparency, and restore confidence that we mean what we say."
Victims and anyone with information about abuse can call the hotline at 1-800-771-7755 or file a complaint online at ag.ny.gov/ClergyAbuse.