The DOJ is finally investigating Catholic Church Sex Crimes, and it Could Catalyze Other Lawsuits Commentary
The DOJ is finally investigating Catholic Church Sex Crimes, and it Could Catalyze Other Lawsuits
Edited by: Jessica Lasky

The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently launched an investigation into the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. The central focus of the inquiry seeks to determine whether there have been violations of federal child sex-crimes and related crimes among Church leaders. This investigation raises a number of critical issues, including the potential impacts on American law and society. For the Church, there are no certainties about what the investigation portends for clergy or congregation. In the best-case scenario for church leadership, the investigation could be concluded quickly and painlessly, with little or no legal consequence; more menacingly, the investigation could lead to indictments and trigger investigations far and wide.

The catalyst for the federal investigation was a report released by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in August 2018, detailing its own investigation into the Church. The twenty-three grand jurors who helped compile the report included practicing Catholics who based their reporting on internal documents surrendered by six Dioceses and on testimony from victims. The findings indicated that more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused children over seven decades, and the priests were protected by a hierarchy of church leadership. The findings stated:

Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were pre- pubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

The report also noted that most perpetrators avoided prosecution due to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations laws. Within a couple months of the report’s release, federal investigators began knocking on Church doors seeking further information as to whether federal laws were violated. Among various Dioceses in the state, federal investigators have sought subpoenas for internal records to search for a number of items. The information sought includes evidence of church officials moving children across state lines for purposes of sex, evidence of child pornography law violations, and evidence that the church reassigned suspected predators or concealed criminal conduct.

This investigation has been hailed as a first of sorts for the DOJ. In the past, crimes in the Church were largely left to internal Church disciplinary procedures or the legal actions of local state authorities. The crimes being investigated in this instance, however, are federal, which opens up a new frontier for federal prosecution.

As the grand jury report noted, Pennsylvania had successfully prosecuted less than a handful of individuals for such crimes. Under federal law, however, the outcomes could be radically different. In the federal criminal code, 18 U.S.C. § 3299 eliminates the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases arising under the specific statutory provisions. This means that many of the crimes that could not be prosecuted under state law might very well be pursued under federal law. Moreover, other crimes may still fit into the general five-year statute of limitations for federal crimes, including potential conspiracy and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act violations. The federal investigation represents a starker situation for the Church in particular because unlike the state inquiry, this one represents a standing opportunity to extend the investigation beyond Pennsylvania’s borders.

One of the overarching questions raised by the federal investigation centers on how candid the Church will be with secular authorities. As church leaders have already demonstrated ongoing predilection for concealing wrongdoing among its clergy, it is uncertain how forthcoming and open they will be when it comes to complying with government requests. The situation leaders now face is qualitatively different from the state’s investigation, where offenders were guaranteed shelter under the state’s statute of limitations law. Under federal law, however, the possibility of many more prosecutions may change church leaders’ willingness to cooperate. This reality raises the stakes for the Church and makes it more likely that leaders will be more resistant to the DOJ than they were to state investigators.

Another concern is how the federal government’s investigation will impact state lawmaking and public opinion of the church. Already there is a movement among states, including Pennsylvania, to revise statute of limitations laws to open up the possibility of more prosecutions. With these and other investigations into the Church, it seems that public sentiment of the Church sours by day. As one commentator noted about the state investigation, “It’s time for #MeToo in the Catholic Church.” One might speculate how further federal action might cause disaffection among church members or be a spark for genuine reform.

Perhaps the most important issue that these questions raise is what widescale prosecution might mean for the Church. In other words, what if more states moved to revise their statute of limitations laws? What if the federal investigation in Pennsylvania serves as a blueprint for other federal investigations across the country? How would the Church defend itself from sustained prosecutions at state and federal levels? What kind of drain might this entail financially to defend members? What is the scope and scale of liability that the Church may be looking at long term?

From a financial perspective, such developments could prove costly. For victims, it would bring justice to a sordid story because for centuries the Church has collected tax-free money in donations to become among the wealthiest organizations in the world. Yet during many of these years, its clergy committed unspeakable acts against children; and worse, leadership spent Church resources including money, time and effort to hide these facts. Thus, for some, if the Church were forced to disgorge its wealth to fund defense efforts and pay victims’ restitution, it would be “just desserts.” At the extreme, this investigation forces one to imagine a future in which dollars and wealth flow from the Church to victims, the state, and to the legal profession that would perform the legal labor.

With an array of potential defendants in Pennsylvania alone, the scale of liability is seismic and could morph into one of the greatest legal Goliaths the Church has ever faced. Indeed, if the DOJ prosecutes offenders from the Church the way it has prosecuted drug offenders, the prospects of large-scale prosecution could drastically alter the complexion and coffers of the Church. Hence, if the DOJ were to trod this path, it would represent a new era in enforcement, and simultaneously, an end to the DOJ’s hands-off approach to prosecuting Church leaders. For many victims and sympathizers, these developments would be welcome, even if they are tardy, and even if many of the most ruthless and heinous individuals will never be brought to earthly justice.

SpearIt is a visiting professor at the Gonzaga University School of Law where he teaches Criminal Law and Law and Religion. SpearIt is also a tenured professor at Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Additionally, SpearIt serves as the Executive Committee Member for the Association of American Law Schools Section on Law & Religion.


Suggested citation: SpearIt, The DOJ is finally investigating Catholic Church sex crimes, and it could catalyze other lawsuits, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Nov. 13, 2018,

This article was prepared for publication by Jess Lasky, an Associate Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at


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