DETROIT (CBS DETROIT/AP) — Hundreds of boxes. Millions of records. From Michigan to New Mexico this month, attorneys general are sifting through files on clergy sex abuse, seized through search warrants and subpoenas at dozens of archdioceses.
They’re looking to prosecute, and not just priests. If the boxes lining the hallways of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s offices contain enough evidence, she said, she is considering using state racketeering laws usually reserved for organized crime. Prosecutors in Michigan are even volunteering on weekends to get through all the documents as quickly as possible.
For decades, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were largely left to police their own. But now, as American bishops gather for a conference to confront the reignited sex-abuse crisis this week, they’re facing the most scrutiny ever from secular law enforcement.
A nationwide Associated Press query of more than 20 state and federal prosecutors last week found they are looking for legal means to hold higher ups in the church accountable for sex abuse. They have raided diocesan offices, subpoenaed files, set up victim tip lines and launched sweeping investigations into decades-old allegations. Thousands of people have called hotlines nationwide, and five priests have recently been arrested.
“Some of the things I’ve seen in the files makes your blood boil, to be honest with you,” Nessel said. “When you’re investigating gangs or the Mafia, we would call some of this conduct a criminal enterprise.”
If a prosecutor applies racketeering laws, also known as RICO, against church leaders, bishops and other church officials could face criminal consequences for enabling predator priests, experts say. Such a move by Michigan or one of the other law enforcement agencies would mark the first known time that actions by a diocese or church leader were branded a criminal enterprise akin to organized crime.
“That would be an important step because it would set the standard for pursuing justice in these cases,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank that tracks statute of limitations reforms.
Monsignor G. Michael Bugarin, who handles sex abuse accusations for the Detroit Archdiocese, said they too are committed to ending abuse and cover-ups. Bugarin said they cooperate with law enforcement, and that won’t change if the attorney general is considering organized crime charges.
“The law is the law, so I think we just have to respect what the current law is,” he said.
Some defenders of the church bristle at the notion of increased legal action, saying the Catholic institution is being singled out by overzealous prosecutors. A spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to requests for an interview Monday. The church has said it is already taking steps to address clergy abuse.
Seventeen years after U.S. bishops passed a “zero tolerance” policy against sexually abusive priests, they will consider new measures for accountability over abuse at their gathering this week in Baltimore. The meeting follows a global order issued by Pope Francis last month requiring all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities.
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