Survivors of priest sex abuse on Wednesday called on Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to give Attorney General Josh Hawley subpoena power in his investigation into possible clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church.
Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests gathered outside the Capitol with a letter imploring the governor to authorize Hawley to conduct a grand jury-style investigation into the issue. Two Kansas City-area SNAP supporters delivered the document to Parson’s office prior to the group’s news conference.
“As a former law enforcement official, (Gov. Parson) surely understands the difference between a real investigation and an inadequate investigation,” said former SNAP director David Clohessy. “We’re asking him to essentially order the attorney general to do this probe and to do it right.”
Without subpoena power, Clohessy said, Hawley has no idea whether the dioceses will provide all pertinent church records.
“And historically, bishops have worked very hard for a long time to keep these church documents hidden,” he said. “It boggles the mind to think that suddenly they’d do a 180-degree turnaround and provide every single piece of paper they have on every single predator priest.”
Hawley has said he does not have criminal jurisdiction and that cases would be referred to local prosecutors. But his chief of staff told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week that procedures are available that would give the attorney general’s office criminal jurisdiction but implementing them would require action by a local prosecutor or the governor.
“Yes, there are procedures through which a local prosecutor and/or the governor can initiate a process that would result in our office being appointed special prosecutor,” Daniel Hartman, Hawley’s chief of staff, said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch.
Parson’s office said Wednesday that it will require a request from a local prosecutor seeking the assistance of the attorney general in order for the governor’s office to have “Constitutional and statutory authority to compel any further actions.”
Hawley’s spokeswoman, Mary Compton, said in a statement Wednesday: “The Attorney General’s Office has met with current and former SNAP leadership regarding the investigation. We invite constructive input from all members of the community and all interested persons.”
Compton said all four of the Catholic dioceses in Missouri have agreed to independent reviews conducted by the Attorney General’s Office.
Without subpoena power, SNAP said in its letter to Parson, “Hawley admits he must rely on bishops to fully and voluntarily share long-secret church abuse records, which SNAP feels will thoroughly compromise any inquiry.”
The group told Parson that “you can change this.”
“You can make what seems destined to be an inadequate probe become a real investigation,” the letter said. “You can order Josh Hawley to get full criminal jurisdiction over these matters and use real power and conduct a genuine, thorough inquiry that will expose wrongdoers and protect kids.”
The priest sex abuse issue erupted Aug. 14 when a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report that found that church leaders had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.
The report contained shocking details of some of the abuse and prompted calls for change from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In Kansas City and across the country, sex abuse victims called for authorities to conduct grand jury investigations similar to Pennsylvania’s.
Hawley initially resisted calls for his office to launch an investigation, saying that was up to local prosecutors because he didn’t have the proper jurisdiction.
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse weren’t satisfied with that answer and 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.
Hawley then reversed course and on Aug. 23 announced that this office would launch a “thorough and robust investigation” after the Archdiocese of St. Louis offered to open up its files for scrutiny. Other dioceses in Missouri, including Kansas City-St. Joseph, quickly said they would cooperate in the investigation as well.
But abuse survivors said what Hawley proposed wasn’t a true investigation, saying dioceses would be able to have too much control over what was being scrutinized.
In its letter to Parson, SNAP said one reason the governor should authorize Hawley to conduct a criminal investigation is because the research group BishopAccountability.org says that at least 113 Catholic clerics in Missouri have been publicly named as proven, admitted or credibly accused child molesters. Fifty-eight additional priests have been acknowledged by the St. Louis archdiocese as accused abusers, SNAP said, though they’re not identified by name.
Another reason the group gave for a criminal probe is “because at least dozens of these potentially dangerous clerics still live and work among unsuspecting neighbors and colleagues.”
Without subpoenas and hearing testimony under oath, SNAP told the governor, “it will be more likely that a half-hearted, rushed probe, timed for electoral purposes, will result.”
Clohessy said the worst-case scenario is that Hawley “does a quick, inadequate job and leaves already suffering victims of abuse exploited for political gain.”
“The best case scenario is that dozens or hundreds of still suffering men and women find the courage to come forward, they feel heard and validated, and political figures in this state force reform on the church via new legislation or prosecution.”