New Jersey law enforcement officials have ruled out conducting a grand jury investigation of priest sex-abuse allegations in the state’s five Roman Catholic dioceses.
In a private meeting Wednesday with a victims’ group, First Assistant Attorney General Peter C. Harvey said an open-ended probe is inappropriate, mainly because many abuse cases are decades old and can’t be prosecuted.
“We cannot maneuver around statute of limitations and other legal boundaries,” Harvey said in a statement issued after the meeting. “It is inappropriate to use a grand jury to investigate incidents knowing that the grand jury would not be allowed to commence any prosecution.”
Members of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, which in recent days has called for an investigation, said they were disappointed by Harvey’s response. But they also said the meeting their first with authorities in Trenton was a positive step.
“Our initial take is that this might be the start of a productive dialogue,” Paul Steidler said. “There was a lot of vigorous discussion back and forth.”
Steidler and four others who attended the meeting say they were abused decades ago by a priest in the Morris County community of Mendham. The priest, James T. Hanley, is facing removal from the clergy. But he can’t be charged with a crime because his accusers waited too long to report the allegations. The statute of limitations requires victims to report abuse by the time they turn 23.
Members of SNAP are pressing state officials to take steps which they say will prevent future crimes.
They contend that a grand jury can get to the root of the problem by forcing bishops to turn over personnel files and other internal church documents that show how allegations of abuse were handled.
Prosecutors across the nation have launched similar investigations over the last year as the church scandal escalated. In Westchester County, N.Y., a grand jury reviewed scores of documents from the Archdiocese of New York. Without indicting anyone, the panel issued a series of recommendations to the state Legislature, including one calling for criminal penalties for allowing an employee with a record of child abuse to work with children.
But in New Jersey, state law narrows the scope of grand jury investigation, officials said. “In New Jersey, grand juries hear evidence to determine if there is sufficient evidence to charge someone with a crime,” said John R. Hagerty, spokesman for Attorney General David Samson. “Other jurisdictions have investigations that look at broad-based issues our state statutes do not allow for that.”
Still, Hagerty said the state wasn’t ruling out investigating individual cases. “Even if they appear to be outside the statute of limitations, we might take a look at them, because the accused individual might be still involved in illegal conduct,” he said.
Members of SNAP also asked officials to:
Require bishops to submit quarterly reports detailing the status of priests accused of sex crimes.
Support proposed legislation eliminating the statute of limitations.
Allow SNAP members to serve as “survivor liaisons” to new victims.
Participate in a statewide support group meeting.
Hagerty said the state would review the proposals on the statue of limitations, and help SNAP members connect with county prosecutors to possibly serve as liaisons with victims.
Hagerty said the state had no authority to ask the bishops for quarterly reports on accused priests.