OSWEGO — Barbara Underwood, New York’s attorney general, subpoenaed all of the state’s Roman Catholic diocese Thursday as part of a full-scale civil investigation into sex abuse allegations against clergy and church leaders.
All eight dioceses, including Syracuse — the governing body of Oswego’s Catholic community — have been directed to produce all documentation regarding sex abuse allegations, payments or settlements to victims and other findings from internal investigations, according to the AG’s office.
The Diocese of Syracuse issued a brief statement on Thursday afternoon, promising full cooperation. Local Catholic clergy members declined comment when reached Thursday by The Palladium-Times.
A grand jury report released just weeks ago detailed the abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania and at least six other states, including New York and New Jersey, are now following suit.
The new revelations have brought to the surface long-simmering feelings of acrimony and anger from Catholic communities across the nation and Oswego County is no different.
Several of Oswego’s faithful, including Marianne Barone-Trent and Sue Sweet, have been advocating for local victims of clergy sex abuse for decades.
“We could not get anyone to investigate or take us seriously,” said Sweet. “No one can deny this anymore.”
Sweet said Thursday that the attorney general’s office had been alerted, by her and others, for years about clergy sex abuse in Oswego and other locations. the reminded people of the statute of limitations.
“It’s great,” she says of the official probe. “But it’s not enough. They’re doing this to cover themselves — to say, ‘We did what we were supposed to do.’ It’s very odd after all this time that the attorney general’s office, which has been notified many times in the last 20 years, is doing this now.”
The investigation proceeds through the attorney general’s charities bureau, which promises to look into how both dioceses and other non-profit church entities “reviewed and potentially covered up allegations of extensive sexual abuse of minors,” a Thursday statement read.
The attorney general’s criminal division announced in July that it is also seeking to partner with local district attorneys – the only entities with the power to convene grand juries to investigate these types of matters – to “investigate and, if warranted, prosecute any individuals who have committed criminal offenses that fall within the applicable statutes of limitations.”
“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover ups in the dioceses,” Attorney General Underwood said. “Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well, and we are going to do everything in our power to bring them the justice they deserve. I urge all victims and anyone else with information to contact our hotline. And make no mistake: the only way that justice can fully and truly be served is for the legislature to finally pass the Child Victims Act.”
Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes said he was in favor of strengthening New York’s laws regarding statutes of limitation on charges of abuse, noting his office sometimes “felt like we were powerless to bring charges and get justice.”
“If there’s reliable evidence, why would the state set up a barrier for justice?” Oakes said in an interview Thursday. “This victim is going to live with that trauma and harm for the rest of their lives, why should that offender have a time limit on when they can be held accountable?”
Many cases of clergy sex abuse — including some in Oswego — may not be prosecutable offenses given those statutes of limitations. Barone-Trent and others traveled to Albany for the first time in 2003 to urge passage of the Child Victims Act, which would allow all victims to file civil suits until age 50 and seek criminal charges until age 28.
Under current law, victims have until age 23 to file civil cases or seek criminal charges for most types of child sexual abuse. Some of the most serious child sex crimes have no time limit on the bringing of criminal charges, but only for conduct that occurred in 2001 or later.
The state Assembly has twice passed the Child Victims Act but a handful of state senators have stalled voting through the upper state house. At a recent rally, child advocates shamed senate GOP leadership for refusing to bring the act to the floor for a vote.
“Until those in power in New York State pass the statute of limitations bill and waive the statute of limitations, it’s premature,” Sweet said of the probe. “It’s great, but it’s not enough. It will go nowhere. Usually, victims run in shame. A lot of it comes out later in life, especially with the prepubescent abuse, which we see a lot of.”
Sweet said the magnitude of these crimes against children and young adults can impact them for life, causing spiritual, psychological and a host of other potential issues.
“There will be some sacrificial lambs,” Sweet said of the probe. “New things going to come out and look like heroes but all of this has been swept under the rug for years. The AG’s office is pre-empting the passing of the bill, trying to say they’ve done everything. I want to see this bill passed, and after that — go for it.”
While local advocates are only marginally satisfied, other Catholic groups expressed outrage at the announcement.
William Donohue, President of New York’s Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called the Attorney General’s actions “manifestly unjust and indefensible.”
In an open letter to Underwood, Donohue asked pointedly if the attorney general's office would “convene a grand jury on criminal behavior focusing exclusively on black neighborhoods.”
Underwood also announced the opening of a clergy abuse hotline, which she hopes will shed more light on previously unreported crimes. Victims and anyone with information about abuse can call 1-800-771-7755 or file a complaint online at ag.ny.gov/ClergyAbuse. Investigators will review all allegations and the attorney general’s office and law enforcement partners pledged to seek to protect the identities of victims and witnesses.