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DA's, State Attorney General Investigating Clergy Sex Abuse

NY Attorney General Barbara Underwood
Karen DeWitt
NY Attorney General Barbara Underwood

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood has stepped up her office's investigation into the Roman Catholic church's handling of sex abuse allegations.

Last week, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced a clergy abuse hotline and online complaint form where victims and anyone with information can provide such information – part of her ongoing investigation into sexual abuse of children within the New York dioceses of the Catholic Church.  Onondoga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick says Underwood reached out to the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.   "There was unanimity among the DA's that we would cooperate with the AG in any manner, shape or form that she needed. It's important to understand in New York, the Attorney General does not have concurrent jurisdiction over criminal matters with the District Attorneys like Attorney General Shapiro does in Pennsylvania. So it's a little bit different animal. If Barbara presents any matter to a grand jury and discovers something criminal, that would in all likelihood be turned over to a the local D.A."

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Albany Diocese Bishop Ed Scharfenberger, photographed during a September 2018 appearance at Academy of the Holy Names in Albany.

Albany Diocese’s Bishop Ed Scharfenberger welcomes the  investigation.  "Our processes are sound in dealing with issues as they come up. Of course you know much of this that we are experiencing right now is some of the reaction to the revelations about former Cardinal McCarrick, you know, how did he get to the position he was for so long, who was involved in that, especially when there was longstanding rumors of alleged misbehavior on his part. So, the transparency there obviously needs to be looked at, and I think that's the primary motivation here."

McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was removed from ministry in June for sexually abusing an altar boy.

Fitzpatrick says several DA's have already subpoenaed records.  "I think the most notable operation was by Kate Hogan, just north of where you are. She actually discovered criminality involving a priest that was time-barred in New York but not time-barred in Massachusetts, so she referred the criminal prosecution of that offender to the Massachusetts authorities and he was convicted."

Fitzpatrick says he's already subpoenaed records from the Syracuse Diocese, and if anything comes to the attention of any diocese that is potentially criminal, the local DA would immediately be notified.

Bishop Scharfenberger says dealing with such issues is important to the church's credibility.  "I myself have long wanted to do, um, let me just say, to try to expose and to publicize what our policies and procedures are now, what they had been, whether we've lived up to them in the past and over the years how we've addressed this issue when victims come forward. And so I very much welcome that investigation, although I myself had gotten one started prior to that, you know, by going to the district attorney myself, and I'm very confident that we can get that done."

Fitzpatrick would like to see the AG's probe trigger legislative changes, including extending the statute of limitations, mandated reporting and redefining a charge of felony endangering the welfare of a child.  "Most if not all of these problems occurred years ago because people who were known sexual offenders were simply moved from point A to point B as if somehow the problem was going to disappear, and then that person goes from Albany to Syracuse to Buffalo and leaves a trail of destruction in their wake, and the person that was aware of that, be it a bishop be it a coach, whoever it is, that person goes and all they face is the scrutiny of public opinion as opposed to the criminal justice system. That conduct ought to be very serious felonious conduct."

Underwood sent out eight subpoenas, one for every diocese in the state.  Thursday, leaders of the American Catholic Church met with Pope Francis in Rome. CBS News reports the U.S. bishops said Francis "listened deeply from the heart" during discussions but they offered few details and no "next steps."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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