PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Two years ago, the American attorney in Philadelphia joined the long line of ambitious prosecutors investigating the Roman Catholic Church's handling of complaints of priest abuse.
The Justice Department, in spite of extensive reports showing the long history of burying abuse complaints in secret archives, moving problematic priests to new parishes, setting prosecutors dormant, and fighting laws in favor of victims of child sexual assault, never had a conspiracy against the Church initiated.
US attorney William McSwain sent subpoenas to bishops across Pennsylvania asking them to hand over their files and submit to a grand jury testimony upon request. The FBI interviewed at least six accused priests, court records show.
But with McSwain's tenure likely nearing its end, and President-elect Joe Biden will take office next month, there is no evidence that a full-blown indictment against the Church is underway. So far the case has resulted in a single arrest: an 82-year-old debilitated priest, Robert Brennan, was accused of lying to FBI agents who showed up at his door.
However, the filings in this case are instructive. They show that five months after targeting McSwain, the FBI reached a dead end in the broader church investigation.
"I can say with confidence that this team has been extraordinarily thorough and that this investigation is currently being terminated," an FBI agent wrote in a March 22, 2019 memo to McSwain's office.
Victim attorneys, who have long sought a full account of the alleged cover-up by church officials, are disappointed, but perhaps not surprised.
McSwain is nowhere near the first prosecutor to wonder if the Catholic Church's handling of sexual assault complaints, especially before it passed its 2002 "Dallas Charter" for the Protection of Children, was the work of a criminal enterprise.
"Everyone wants a RICO investigation," said the victim's attorney Zach Hiner, referring to the law on racketeer-influenced and corrupt organizations.
The story goes on
"There is no doubt that these types of stories can raise people's hopes and when they get out of hand it leads to a 'people don't believe us' mentality 'the church will win,' said Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of the Abused by Priests, "But I think the very fact that we're even talking about it is something people should hope for."
In Pennsylvania alone, at least four other state and local attorneys have spent years investigating the Church, producing harrowing Grand Jury reports in 2005, 2011, 2016, and 2018 that each time concluded that they weren't bishops or the because of the years The church itself had passed away.
The closest thing came was the 2011 arrest of Monsignor William Lynn, an aide to long-time Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. Lynn was convicted of endangering children in 2012 and spent two years in prison, but his convictions were overturned twice. His third trial began in March when the city's courthouse closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
McSwain's investigation followed a two-year investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro that culminated in an explosive report released in August 2018. Shapiro explained the abuse of Catholic clergy that had involved more than 1,000 victims over 70 years in Pennsylvania. Many of his colleagues across the country followed suit.
Just last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the Buffalo Diocese and two former bishops for alleged cover-ups.
Nationwide, US dioceses have filed complaints from 17,000 people and have paid out around $ 4 billion to victims since the 1980s. That number could double in light of recent lookback laws that give them more time to sue. But few prosecutors have filed criminal charges against church leaders or dioceses, usually because of the age of the complaints.
McSwain may have encountered the same problem. He declined to speak to The Associated Press about the case.
“The agents checked tens of thousands of archdiocese documents that local law enforcement had checked in previous investigations. These documents did not reveal any obvious federal criminal offenses, but indicated that additional investigative steps were warranted, ”McSwain said in a motion filed in Brennan's case, explaining the need to interview him with“ numerous clergymen, church staff, victims and other lay people ” .
David Gibson, director of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University, believes that some of the recent research may be politically motivated, as it is popular to take over not only predator priests but those who empowered them.
"Fifteen years ago you didn't mean to offend the bishop, you wanted to work with the diocese. Well, the political calculation is, join in," said Gibson. "I'm all for making dioceses a task, but … when is it great? "
The FBI agents had advised McSwain's office prior to the interview with Brennan that "none of the abuse allegations appear to be federally related" to indict him. Even so, for more than an hour they visited the house he shared with a retired priest in Perryville, Maryland.
Defense attorneys Catherine Henry and Katrina Young called it "outrageous" in court records that they spoke to Brennan and searched his computer without contacting his longtime attorney. They want the charges to be thrown away. Brennan was arrested by Philadelphia prosecutors in 2013, but the abuse allegations were dropped when the prosecutor died weeks later. The same lawyer represented him in a related litigation for the next five years. Brennan gave the agents the attorney's contact information.
The judge has not yet decided whether to dismiss the case. Brennan is charged with lying for saying he doesn't know the prosecutor despite a graduation photo showing them together. Brennan, who said the student was just one of many at the big school, is bailed out.
Gibson believes the church is now belatedly taking steps to address the abuse problem, and believes officials should turn some of their attention to child abuse that is taking place elsewhere. He called Shapiro's report important, but "an excavation of the past".
However, attorney Mitch Garabedian, who helped uncover the Boston Archdiocese of 2002, is still hoping for a federal crime case.
"Many victims and survivors desperately want the federal government to prosecute the Catholic Church for these crimes because it will help victims heal the world and make it safer for children," he said Thursday. "The RICO action would probably be appropriate."
Follow Maryclaire Dale on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale