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Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley launches investigation into clergy sex crimes

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JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said Thursday that he would launch an investigation into sex crimes within the Roman Catholic Church, adding that the Archdiocese of St. Louis had offered to open its files to his office.

At a news conference shortly after Hawley’s announcement, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson promised Hawley’s office would have “unfettered” access to archdiocese records.

“Anything that we have we will turn over,” Carlson said.

Hawley’s announcement came after survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their advocates protested outside his St. Louis office on Wednesday demanding that he launch a statewide investigation. It also came a week after the release of grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that uncovered the widespread abuse of more than 1,000 children by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years.

Hawley, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate this year, said on Thursday that while prosecuting and subpoena authority rested with local law enforcement, his office would still investigate alleged crimes, publish a public report and refer credible cases to local prosecutors.

“While my office does not have jurisdiction at the present time to prosecute any criminal acts of this nature, or again to issue subpoenas to investigate it, it would be possible to conduct a thorough and robust investigation of potential clergy abuse if the various dioceses were willing to cooperate,” Hawley told reporters.

He said Carlson had sent a letter this week confirming that the Archdiocese of St. Louis “will open to my office their files and allow us to conduct a thorough, impartial review of potential clergy abuse.”

Carlson said he contacted Hawley’s office after the archdiocese received mail and phone calls from people urging him to invite an independent review. A few of those with concerns said they would withhold funding.

“The majority of the people said, ‘Tell us what you’ve been doing and make sure it is not done by you but by an independent agency,’” the archbishop said. “And it is my feeling that the attorney general would be the appropriate agency to do this. Obviously it’s going to be at arm’s length. We’re going to have to meet and see what their protocols are going to be, but we’re looking forward to that process beginning.”

Hawley said that he “would invite the state’s other dioceses to cooperate similarly with this office’s investigation, so that our report can be truly comprehensive and statewide.”

Leslie Eidson, spokeswoman for the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, was not immediately available for comment on Thursday.

The Springfield News-Leader reported last week on a couple who sued the diocese alleging that Troy Casteel, its director of family ministry, manipulated the couple during marital counseling between 2013 and 2017.

The lawsuit alleges Casteel sexually abused the wife on diocese property, that the diocese was aware of the abuse and that the diocese provided Casteel “sanctuary.” Until 2015, Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. headed the Springfield diocese before departing for the Kansas City diocese.

There Johnston replaced Bishop Robert W. Finn, who resigned after he was convicted of failing to report a priest’s suspected child abuse.

Jack Smith, spokesman for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said the diocese had not received a formal request from Hawley but would cooperate with the review.

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of the Diocese of Jefferson City said in a letter to Hawley on Thursday that when he took over as bishop in February, the diocese hired an independent firm to review its files.

He said that the review was completed in June, and that the diocese was preparing the release of a report. But, he said that it would “suspend” those efforts while Hawley launches his investigation. He said the diocese would welcome a “thorough review.”

Carlson said he hoped Hawley’s investigation would “give confidence” to people in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

“We did this for one simple reason: the credibility of the archdiocese and the fact that several people reached out to me and asked us to do it, and I thought it was a fair request,” he said. “And I’ve had it done it before.”

In 2002 when he was in the diocese in Sioux Falls he invited the South Dakota attorney general to review diocese files. In St. Louis, a 2017 review of the archdiocese’s records by a retired FBI agent at Carlson’s request found no evidence of abuse, he said.

Sandra Price, executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, said that 27 priests had been relieved of their duties.

“We don’t have any priests serving in priestly ministry that have substantiated or credible allegations of abuse,” she said. “I can’t reiterate that enough.”

Price said the archdiocese had a “very extensive” program to safeguard children and prevent abuse, with measures including training more than 100,000 clergy, staff and parents on how to recognize warning signs and report abuse, conducting and reviewing background checks, auditing parishes and schools to make sure policies are being followed, and prohibiting adults from working alone with children.

“Anyone who works with children may not ever be alone in private with a child,” Price said. “We train everyone on that from the janitors to the principals to the deacons and the priests. That is a very important rule for us.”

Nicole Gorovsky, a former Missouri assistant attorney general, former federal prosecutor and private attorney who specializes in child sexual abuse cases, was among those at the protest on Wednesday.

Gorovsky said that she was “cautiously optimistic” about the investigation.

“It sounds very optimistic, but I am concerned that the archdiocese is the one providing the information as opposed to law enforcement aggressively seeking the information because that means the archdiocese gets to provide what they want to provide,” she said Thursday.

David G. Clohessy, the former head of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priets (SNAP), also said that he was hopeful about Hawley’s investigation but that he still worried that the archdiocese would withhold relevant information.

“Law enforcement needs to use subpoena powers to get at all church abuse records,” he said.

Hawley said he was unaware of any ongoing grand jury investigations headed by local prosecutors in the state. Susan Ryan, spokeswoman for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.

The attorney general did not immediately provide a timeline on how long the investigation would last. He said a team of prosecutors would handle the investigation, and that Christine Krug, the director of his office’s public safety division and sex-crimes prosecutor, would lead the inquiry.

Like Carlson, Hawley said the St. Louis Archdiocese did not place any limits on what materials his office could ask for “at this time.”

“I’m confident that they want to cooperate,” Hawley said. “If there’s not cooperation, that will be public and made known.”

In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said her office had reviewed the Pennsylvania grand jury report and found it identified at least seven priests with connections to Illinois. She said that the Chicago Archdiocese had agreed to meet with her and that she planned to reach out to the other dioceses in the state and expected the bishops would cooperate.

“The Catholic Church has a moral obligation to provide its parishioners and the public a complete and accurate accounting of all sexually inappropriate behavior involving priests in Illinois,” Madigan said.

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Reporter covering St. Louis County politics. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi, and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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