IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Justice Department issues subpoenas to seven Pennsylvania dioceses over sex abuse allegations

A scathing grand jury report from August accused the Catholic church of covering up the sexual abuse of children by more than 300 priests.
Carolyn Fortney, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her family's Roman Catholic parish priest as a child, awaits legislation in the Pennsylvania Capitol to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, on Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.Marc Levy / AP

The Department of Justice issued subpoenas to Catholic leadership in Pennsylvania on Thursday in following a grand jury report this summer that alleged hundreds of priests in the state molested young children for years.

The dioceses of Allentown, Harrisburg, Eerie, Greensburg, Scranton, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have received subpoenas and intend to cooperate with federal investigators, NBC News confirmed on Thursday with church administrators in each district.

A scathing grand jury report from this past August alleged that more than 300 "predator priests" were responsible for the sexual abuse of thousands of children in the state of Pennsylvania and that the Roman Catholic church covered up the abuse to avoid scandal.

All but two of the state's eight dioceses — Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown — were implicated in the grand jury's report.

"This subpoena is no surprise considering the horrific misconduct detailed in the statewide grand jury report," a spokesman for the Diocese of Greensburg said in a statement. "Survivors, parishioners and the public want to see proof that every diocese has taken sweeping, decisive and impactful action to make children safer. We see this as another opportunity for the Diocese of Greensburg to be transparent."

In confirming the subpoenas, a Justice Department official said the effort was being driven by the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, William McSwain, not the main office in Washington.

The federal subpoenas were served a day after Pennsylvania lawmakers failed to push through any reforms to the state’s statute of limitation laws that would enable older clergy sex abuse victims to sue the Catholic Church for damages.

Currently, the age cut off for filing civil claims is 30.

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican and ally of the Church, had been pushing a compromise proposal that would have temporarily lifted the statute of limitations so that older victims could sue individual priests, but not the Church itself.

It was opposed by advocates for clergy abuse victims, the Democrats, and State Attorney General John Shapiro.

Shapiro had been pushing lawmakers to adopt the recommendations of the grand jury, which called for complete elimination of the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children and creating a two year “civil window” for child sex abuse victims who couldn’t file lawsuits before.

Desperate to avoid paying huge settlements, lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry have bitterly opposed any changes to the statute of limitations laws.

Florida attorney Michael Dolce, who worked to change that state's statutes of limitations for civil and criminal prosecution of child sexual battery, called the Department of Justice's involvement "breathtaking."

"That the Department of Justice is launching this investigation appears to be an inherent acknowledgement of what was done to transfer known or suspected perpetrators over state lines, creating countless instances of preventable sexual abuse of children," Dolce said in a statement. "My hope is that this investigation exposes the balance of the truth and results in prosecution of anyone responsible for the interstate victimization of children.”