Josh Hawley warns Catholic bishops: ‘If we get any pushback, we’ll go to the public’

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley File photo

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley wants victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests to know that he is determined to learn everything there is to know about such crimes and cover-ups in this state. “They need to have confidence that this isn’t a whitewash,” he said in a Friday phone interview with The Star’s editorial board.

Along with victims’ groups, we called on Hawley earlier this week to launch a thorough statewide investigation of the kind recently completed in Pennsylvania, where more than 1,000 children were found to have been sexually abused by priests over the last 70 years. For all of those 70 years, that abuse was covered up and victims treated with stunning indifference.

Hawley initially said he didn’t have jurisdiction under Missouri law to do anything of the kind, but then announced the next day that he would ask every diocese in the state to voluntarily open their books.

Now some victims worry that the result will be nothing more than a public relations exercise that will mostly benefit the church and Hawley, who is running for the U.S. Senate. Nicole Goravosky, a former local and federal prosecutor who specializes in child sexual abuse cases, told The Star that what Hawley had proposed is “not a true investigation.”

“You don’t allow the accused to have control over what is investigated. And that’s what is going on,” she said, in an election year in which the attorney general “didn’t want to be seen as doing nothing” during his campaign against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. The Missouri Democratic Party also called the probe politically motivated.

Of course, victims and their champions want this done correctly, and we understand, too, why Democrats don’t want Hawley to get credit for doing anything right this year. As we wrote in pushing for the investigation, the probe is good politics, but it’s also the right thing to do. If, of course, it’s done properly. Hawley deserves a chance to get it right, as he has every reason to want to do.

Without the subpoena power that the grand jury in Pennsylvania had, he would need to work with local prosecutors to convene a grand jury, but doing so shouldn’t pose any problem. In the interview, Hawley called pursuing information through a grand jury with subpoena power “in many ways, ideal.”

In the unlikely event that prosecutors didn’t cooperate, lawmakers in Jefferson City could and should give him concurrent jurisdiction in this kind of case.

Meanwhile, “it is a challenge since we don’t have the power to subpoena,” he said, “which as a prosecutor always makes you nervous. But we’re going to ask for everything we’d ask for if we had that, and if we get any pushback, we’ll go to the public. If there isn’t cooperation, we’ll make that known, and the public will demand it now.”

Yes, we will.

Hawley’s message to all bishops, he said, is this: “I would caution all diocese that no one is going to get to dictate terms” or withhold anything. “We will not stand for that; I will not stand for that. That will be met with rejection and hostility and publication.”

He changed his mind about investigating, he said, after seeing that officials in the Archdiocese of St. Louis had told reporters they’d be willing to open up their files. “We leapt at that,” he said, and are already assembling a team 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.

Now his office is contacting every diocese in the state. The Diocese of St. Louis and of Kansas City-St. Joseph have said they will cooperate, and the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau has announced it will begin an outside, independent inquiry of clergy abuse cases from the last 50 years.

The attorney general in Illinois, Lisa Madigan, has also announced that she’s launching an investigation, and every attorney general in the country should follow suit.

Every day, it seems, another statement from another Catholic prelate makes clear that even now, some church officials don’t understand how serious this crisis is, or how out-of-touch they sound.

Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who was auxiliary bishop of Pittsburgh when crimes detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report occurred, told The Providence Journal this week that he did know about reports of sex abuse, but that responding wasn’t his job.

Cardinal Sergio Obeso Rivera, of Mexico, who was just promoted by Pope Francis in June, told reporters that those who “accuse men of the church should” tread carefully, “because they have long tails that are easily stepped on.” Because accusers are rats, or devils?

Even Francis, who belatedly issued a long sorrowful letter about the grand jury report, according to a report in Italian media isn’t planning to take any other action.

So here in Missouri, we are counting on Hawley to take whatever steps he needs to to give victims the redress they deserve. After all they have been through already, so much more than an election is riding on it.