As the Justice Department launches an investigation of clergy sexual abuse of minors in Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses, it is worth noting that victims have called for such a probe for at least fifteen years. Leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told Attorney General John Ashcroft in a November 2003 letter that the Justice Department was in a “unique position” to plumb the secrets within the church’s organizational structure.
“We believe that senior management within the Church…have not been held institutionally accountable for these practices, and as a non-profit corporation continue to selectively circumvent our Nation’s laws,” their letter said.
SNAP and the Center for Constitutional Rights renewed the long-ignored call for a federal probe in a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dated August 15, one day after the release of the state grand-jury report alleging a long-term coverup of credible abuse allegations in Pennsylvania. The letter calls for criminal or civil charges, “where appropriate,” against the Catholic hierarchy.
The passage of fifteen years makes such an investigation much more difficult for federal prosecutors because the statute of limitations on federal crimes is generally five years. But the letter hints at how federal authorities might overcome limitations that stymied local prosecutors in many states. It points to evidence that the coverup of abuse has continued even after the reforms the U.S. Catholic bishops put in place in 2002, including a Philadelphia grand-jury report from 2011 that asserted thirty-seven credibly accused priests remained in ministry. It charged that “procedures implemented by the Archdiocese to help victims are in fact designed to help the abusers, and the Archdiocese itself.” Still, that’s seven years ago—it would have been much easier for the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia, which is leading the new probe, to investigate back then.
In their letter, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights suggested investigating for violations of international human rights treaties the United States has accepted, “for which there is no statute of limitations.” Another route around statutes of limitations, politically bold but legally possible, was the letter’s suggestion to investigate for a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. This 1970 law was created by Congress to prosecute elusive organized crime bosses who often beat cases in state courts. It has been applied in many other kinds of cases since then.
The RICO statute allows prosecutors to charge a “pattern” of criminal activity stretching back decades. Two “predicate acts”—offenses drawn from a list of thirty-five federal and state crimes—are the starting point for proving a criminal “pattern,” but just one “act” must be within the past five years. For a conviction on a charge of conspiracy to violate the RICO law, it’s not necessary to establish that even one “predicate act” occurred within the past five years. The five-year statute of limitations begins to run “only when the purposes of the conspiracy have either been accomplished or abandoned.”
That’s the language the federal-appeals court in New York used when upholding the conviction of one of the mob bosses accused in the 1986 trial of the Mafia’s ruling “commission,” a case that illustrated how powerful the RICO law can be in going after bosses whose underlings do the dirty work. The RICO law allowed prosecutors to tell the jury about a pattern of criminal activity dating back to 1931.