ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Archdiocese of St. Louis has agreed to open its files to the state attorney general's office for an investigation of potential clergy abuse cases, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said Thursday, and at least two of the state's other Catholic dioceses say they're willing to follow suit.
Hawley's announcement came amid renewed concern about sexual abuse by priests that followed the release of a scathing report in Pennsylvania citing abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests since the 1940s, along with cover-up by church leaders.
Last week, Hawley downplayed the possibility of an investigation from his office, saying local prosecutors, not the attorney general, had investigative authority.
But Hawley, who is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate opposing incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill in November, said during a teleconference with reporters that he received a letter earlier Thursday from St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson offering to open the archdiocese files for an impartial review.
"The Archdiocese of St. Louis, during my episcopacy here, has always taken the protection of children and youth as one of our highest priorities," Carlson wrote.
Hawley asked the three other Catholic dioceses in Missouri to similarly open their files. Representatives of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Diocese of Jefferson City, responding to questions from The Associated Press, pledged cooperation with any investigation by the attorney general. A message seeking comment from the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau was not immediately returned.
Kansas City Attorney Rebecca Randles called for Hawley to open an investigation into local dioceses earlier in the week. On Thursday, she sent a statement praising the attorney general's decision but said she is worried it doesn't go far enough.
We just learned through the media that Missouri’s attorney general has indicated he will begin an inquiry into the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis in Missouri. We are grateful to Mr. Hawley for this preliminary step. However, without the power to subpoena or compel witnesses and documents, the Church remains in control of the evidence. They can present or withhold anything they wish.
While we are pleased that an inquiry is beginning, we recognize its limits and hope Kansas will follow suit.
We urge victims, witnesses and whistleblowers to contact local prosecutors to start investigations with subpoena power. This is a time of reckoning. A reckoning is necessary to protect today’s children from the abuses emanating from an ordained culture of clerical secrecy.------ Rebecca M. Randles
Hawley called the review his "top priority" and said several prosecutors will work on it under the direction of assistant attorney general Christine Krug, a former sex crimes prosecutor in St. Louis. Hawley will issue a report and any potential charging recommendations once the review is complete, but declined to offer a timetable.
"I am firmly of the view that full transparency benefits not only the public but also the church, and most importantly it will help us expose and address potential wrongdoing and protect the vulnerable from abuse," Hawley said.
Pope Francis vowed in the wake of the Pennsylvania report that "no effort must be spared" to root out clergy sex abuse and cover-up from the Catholic Church, and begged forgiveness for the pain suffered by victims.
Missouri victims of clergy abuse and their supporters spoke at separate news conferences this week in St. Louis and Kansas City, urging Hawley to launch a wide-scale investigation. They said that around 170 Catholic priests in Missouri have been accused of molesting children in recent decades, but only a relative few were prosecuted and convicted.
David Clohessy, a 61-year-old St. Louis man who was abused by a priest as a child and who is a longtime advocate for victims, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the new investigation, but worried that church leaders may not provide all documents.
"Law enforcement needs to use subpoena powers to get at all church abuse records, not just the ones one archbishop decides to share behind closed doors," Clohessy said.