A day after Pope John Paul II branded pedophilia in the church a crime, the Philadelphia district attorney today announced a grand jury investigation into alleged sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.
The probe, one of only a few grand jury investigations launched in the United States since the church’s sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston, will look into allegations against priests as well as any attempted coverups by church officials or others, authorities said.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which two months ago revealed credible claims of abuse against 35 priests, said it would cooperate with the investigation but expressed surprise and disappointment over the news, which followed two meetings between church lawyers and city authorities.
The archdiocese, which oversees 1.4 million Catholics in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs, also asserted that church officials have “acted at all times in conformity with the laws” while dealing with sex abuse cases that date back as far as 50 years.
“This is an exercise in trying to ascertain the truth, and after all, that’s what all of us want. Whatever the truth is, that’s what it is,” District Attorney Lynne Abraham said during a news conference at which she asserted her office’s authority over the church on matters of child abuse.
“I’ll make the decisions, consulting with our lawyers, about whether or not crimes were committed,” she added.
Up to now, allegations have involved 47 children, mostly adolescent boys, and priests who have since retired, died or left the priesthood. Abraham could not say how many cases would be subject to the probe, because her jurisdiction spans only one of five counties that make up the archdiocese.
But she took issue with the assertion that the church can decide when to notify authorities of sex abuse allegations.
“They must report allegations of abuse immediately, and within 24 hours follow it up in writing,” Abraham said, adding that she hoped the probe would reveal why her office has not received a complaint against a priest in 11 years.
Abraham’s announcement came while Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was still in Rome for an unprecedented meeting of U.S. bishops about pedophilia in the church. Bevilacqua had designated today as an archdiocese “Day of Atonement and Sanctification” for sexual abuse.
Abraham, noting that in Pennsylvania the statute of limitations for child sex cases expires when the victim reaches 23, called on alleged abuse victims to come forward in the secrecy of the grand jury proceedings.
“I want to know, and I think the public wants to know, what’s happened,” Abraham said.