Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley initially resisted calls for his office to launch an investigation into alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
It was up to local prosecutors, Hawley said, because he doesn’t have the proper jurisdiction.
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse weren’t satisfied with that answer. They sought to put pressure on the attorney general — who is also the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate — by holding events in Kansas City and outside Hawley’s St. Louis office demanding he get involved.
By Thursday, Hawley had reversed course.
He announced that his office would launch an investigation after the Archdiocese of St. Louis reached out and offered to open up its files for scrutiny. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph quickly followed suit.
“While my office does not have jurisdiction at the present time to prosecute any criminal acts of this nature, or to 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,” Hawley told reporters.
Not everyone was quite so ready to celebrate the news.
Nicole Goravosky, a former local and federal prosecutor who specializes in child sexual abuse cases, said what Hawley has proposed is “not a true investigation.”
“You don’t allow the fox to guard the hen house,” she said. “You don’t allow the accused to have control over what is investigated. And that’s what is going on.”
And Hawley’s hesitancy to get involved drew criticism from Missouri Democrats, who say it’s become a familiar pattern for the attorney general to dodge thorny issues until they become too politically toxic to ignore.
“Josh Hawley’s record is clear,” said Brooke Goren, deputy communications director for the Missouri Democratic Party. “He puts himself and his political ambitions ahead of his responsibility to seek the answers Missourians deserve no matter who is accused of wrongdoing.”
Mary Compton, press secretary for the attorney general’s office, defended the investigation.
“Despite lacking power to subpoena or prosecute in this area, this office has found a way to conduct a probing and thorough investigation,” Compton said in a statement. “Those who want to criticize this action can explain themselves to the victims.”
If the dioceses in Missouri do not cooperate, Compton said, “we will certainly make that fact known. We also look forward to meeting with victims and victim groups, and we encourage anyone with information to report to come forward to our office.”
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 identified more than 1,000 child victims while acknowledging the number is likely much higher.
Two former Kansas City area priests are among those named in the report: the Rev. Mark Honhart, who served in numerous parishes in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese from 1980 to 2001; and the Rev. Marvin Justi, who was co-pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Shawnee in 1972. Both priests later ended up in Pennsylvania.
Goravosky said that instead of relying on the cooperation of the accused, Hawley could instead coordinate efforts with local prosecutors to convene a grand jury to do a proper investigation.
In a letter she wrote to the attorney general on Friday, she said Hawley is “currently running an advertisement on television claiming that you coordinated a statewide audit on the backlog of untested rape kits in prosecutor’s offices in Missouri and are now coordinating an effort to get funding for this issue, and you are publicly pushing state prosecutors to be more aggressive on sexual assault cases.”
“You can behave similarly here.”
Hawley wants it to appear as though he is taking action, Goravosky said, because “it’s an election year, and he didn’t want to be seen as doing nothing.”
“But it’s important people not be satisfied with what’s going on here,” she said. “It’s not a true investigation.”
Hawley has faced this type of criticism before.
After The Star revealed last year that former Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff were using a self-destructing text messaging app called Confide, Hawley faced calls to investigate whether the Missouri’s Sunshine Law was being violated.
He initially argued that he couldn’t investigate Greitens because his office was already defending the governor in other legal matters. Two weeks after The Star’s report, however, Hawley announced an investigation into whether Confide was being used to illegally destroy public records in the governor’s.
His Confide probe ended with a determination that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, in part because a lack of subpoena power meant investigators could not find evidence.
Hawley also faced calls last year to to look into whether Greitens misused a donor list belonging to a veterans charity. The allegations first came to light in October 2016, then reemerged throughout the spring and summer of 2017.
The attorney general’s office rebuffed calls for an inquiry, saying it did not have jurisdiction over campaign finance violations or criminal theft. But in April, Hawley launched an investigation under Missouri’s consumer protection and charitable registration and reporting laws that eventually led to felony charges against the former governor.
The felony charges against Greitens were eventually dropped by the St. Louis prosecutor as part of a plea deal that led to his resignation on June. 1.
Kelli Ford, Hawley’s campaign press secretary, chalked up the criticism of the attorney general to Democrats trying to help Hawley’s opponent this fall, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
“Claire McCaskill has been a professional politician for so long,” she said, “there’s no tragedy she won’t exploit for political gain.”