Kansas City’s Catholic diocese had a quick response Thursday when Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley asked dioceses across the state to allow an investigation of priest sexual abuse.
“The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph will cooperate with any review the attorney general requests,” diocesan spokesman Jack Smith said in an email to The Star.
The brief response came shortly after Hawley announced that his office is conducting a “thorough and robust investigation” of potential clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Hawley said his office had full cooperation from St. Louis church officials, and he encouraged other dioceses in the state to allow similar investigations.
“Today, I have received a letter from the (St. Louis) archbishop confirming that he and the archdiocese will open to my office their files and will allow us to conduct a thorough, impartial review of potential clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Louis,” Hawley told reporters in a telephone news conference.
“So we intend to gather extensive evidence from the church, as well as from victims and their families and other persons who are not associated with the archdiocese. At the conclusion of this investigation, my office will issue a formal report setting out our findings. That report will also include any charging recommendations based on the evidence we discover in our investigation.”
He said the report would be made public.
“The end goal here is a document for the public where they can see exactly what evidence we have gathered,” he said.
Hawley, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, said he had not yet heard from the other dioceses in the state.
“We will be reaching out to them,” he said, “and I would strongly encourage them to do as the archbishop has done and to open to us their files, their information, make folks available to us so that we conduct an investigation that will cover the state and issue findings that will be comprehensive statewide.”
Hawley said the St. Louis investigation will be staffed by career prosecutors and led by Christine Krug, head of the attorney general’s Public Safety Division and a longtime sex crimes prosecutor in St. Louis.
“We will go where the evidence leads us, and we will be thorough,” he said. “This will be a probing, comprehensive investigation.”
He said he was heartened by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson’s willingness to cooperate.
“I am firmly of the view that full transparency benefits not only the public but also the church and most importantly, it will help us expose and address potential wrongdoing and protect the vulnerable from abuse,” Hawley said.
Hawley said that under Missouri law, only locally elected prosecutors have the power to subpoena or to convene a grand jury.
“While my office does not have jurisdiction at the present time to prosecute any criminal acts of this nature or issue subpoenas to investigate it, it would be possible to conduct a thorough and robust investigation of potential clergy abuse if the various dioceses were willing to cooperate,” he said.
David Clohessy, former head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and a survivor of priest sexual abuse, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the attorney general’s investigation.
“Law enforcement needs to use subpoena powers to get at all church abuse records, not just the ones one archbishop decides to share behind closed doors,” Clohessy said. “And it’s important that Catholic officials are questioned under oath, like in a grand jury, instead of relying solely on sanitized church records.”
The priest sex abuse issue erupted last week when a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report that said church leaders had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.
The report said the grand jury had investigated child sex abuse in six of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses, heard testimony from dozens of witnesses and examined half a million pages of internal diocesan documents.
More than 1,000 child victims were identifiable from those documents, the report said, adding that because records were lost and other victims were afraid to come forward, the actual number is likely much higher.
The report contained horrific details of some of the abuse and prompted calls for accountability from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. On Monday, Pope Francis released a 2,000-word letter admitting that the Vatican hadn’t done enough to address the issue.
Calls have been going out across the country for other states to conduct similar investigations into clergy sexual abuse, including in Kansas City, where on Monday sex abuse victims called for Kansas and Missouri authorities to launch their own probes. On Wednesday, several victims of clergy sexual abuse gathered outside Hawley’s St. Louis office to demand he investigate.
Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City attorney who has handled hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases, said she has counted more than 230 priests throughout Missouri and the Kansas City area who have been accused of sexual abuse. But only a handful, she said, have been charged and one bishop punished. Given the population of the area, Randles said, it is possible that there could be a bigger problem here than in Pennsylvania.
Hawley encouraged victims of clergy sex abuse to contact the attorney general’s office at ago.mo.gov.
“If there are victims who need to speak with someone, we want to speak with you,” he said. “We are launching on our website a web portal that is specifically for victims or people who believe they have information that’s relevant, where they can report it to us. They can do it anonymously if they so choose.”
Many also are calling on states to eliminate their statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes so priests involved in older cases can be criminally prosecuted. In the Pennsylvania investigation, the grand jury said it was only able to charge two priests with sex abuse crimes because the other cases were all too old.
Hawley said that’s one of the reasons he wanted to begin the investigation right away.
“The statute of limitations is always a concern,” he said. “Whether or not that statute should be varied and the period lengthened in some way is a question that the Legislature may take up and may want to look at, but I can say from a prosecutor’s point of view, that is a reason for an investigation that moves as quickly as is reasonable.”