New Jersey will investigate allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, following a report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania that found more than 1,000 victims there over 70 years.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said he's forming his own task force, which could use subpoenas and other investigative methods to uncover evidence that it would present to a state grand jury. The task force is to look into allegations of abuse as well as attempts to cover up incidents, Grewal's office said in a news release.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro led a two-year investigation into abuses in his state that culminated last month in a grand jury report that found hundreds of victims, evidence of a cover-up by church leaders and accusations of sexual abuse against at least four priests who spent part of their ministries in New Jersey. Some 300 Pennsylvania priests were implicated.
“The report revealed that sexual assaults on children – and efforts to cover up such assaults – were far more widespread in Pennsylvania than we ever thought possible," Grewal said in a statement from his office. "We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here."
In June, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Newark and Washington, D.C. archbishop who was accused of sexually abusing a minor decades earlier as a priest in New York. Church leaders in New Jersey acknowledged that McCarrick had been accused of sexual abuse by three adults in New Jersey, with two of those cases resulting in confidential legal settlements.
Grewal said his office has established a hotline for people to anonymously report allegations of abuse by Catholic clergy. The line will be staffed around the clock by trained professionals, according to the press release. The toll-free number is 855-363-6548.
As Grewal announced New Jersey's scrutiny of abuse cases, his counterpart in New York issued civil subpoenas to the eight Catholic dioceses in the state and launched a telephone hotline and online form for alleged victims and witnesses to report allegations. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a statement that she was moved by the Pennsylvania grand jury report's findings of "incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy."
In New Jersey, Grewal's efforts were welcomed by state Sen. Joseph Vitale, who last week prodded the attorney general to take action, and by the New Jersey Catholic Conference.
Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the conference, said that since 2002, church authorities have been required to promptly report any current or past allegations of sexual abuse to the attorney general and county prosecutors. He issued a statement asserting that "no institution, public or private, has done more to prevent abuse than the Catholic Church in New Jersey."
"New Jersey is not Pennsylvania," Brannigan said in an interview.
Vitale, a Middlesex County Democrat, said any thorough review of clergy sexual abuse in New Jersey is likely to uncover a "stunning" number of cases. In early 2002, the Boston Globe began reporting on sexual abuses and coverups in the Archdiocese of Boston, igniting an abuse scandal that quickly spread to other parts of the country with reports of clergy sexual misconduct that went on for decades under the noses of church leadership.
"It is statistically impossible to say that New Jersey is not Pennsylvania," Vitale said. "Is the Catholic Conference saying that child sex abuse and rape is confined to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, that it's not a systemic problem? It is."
Vitale has sponsored bills to extend the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse. Those rules currently give victims until they turn 20, or two years from the moment they connect the abuse with the trauma it has caused, to bring a claim in civil court. But priests and other abusers can't be criminally prosecuted for cases that predate 1996, when the state removed the statute of limitations for sex abuse.
McCarrick, who has said he does not recall any alleged incidents of sexual abuse, was the subject of gossip among New Jersey Catholics by the late 1990s about his sleeping arrangements with seminarians, according to a column by NorthJersey.com and USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey columnist Mike Kelly. The archbishop reportedly shared a bed with a favored seminarian during retreats at his beach house in Sea Girt, Kelly reported.
Mark Crawford, who heads the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said church authorities have moved to settle abuse claims with monetary payouts that require confidentiality agreements. He said he's hopeful that victims will come forward to Grewal's task force despite any such agreements.
"Just as Pennsylvania did, we have to get to the bottom of this whole sordid story," Crawford said. "Our law-enforcement community needed to act."
Former Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino, who has extensive experience prosecuting sex-crimes cases, will lead the new task force.
Information about the task force is available at www.nj.gov/oag/clergy-abuse.