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The Legal Challenges In Investigating Church Abuse


Pennsylvania's grand jury report on child sex abuse in the Catholic Church has put pressure on attorneys general across the country to begin their own investigation. But there are legal challenges that vary state by state. Attorney General Barbara Underwood of New York state has asked district attorneys to take on investigations in their own counties. David Soares is district attorney of Albany County. He's currently taken steps to see what investigation in his county would take. Mr. District Attorney, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID SOARES: Well, thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: What are some of the factors you have to ponder before you commit to an investigation?

SOARES: Well, I think, the one thing that the attorney general of Pennsylvania has done is he's provided a roadmap to bringing about literally thousands of people the kind of relief and the validation that they've been searching for and spent a lifetime searching for. And while attorney general Shapiro has provided that map, we have to look for the hurdles and figure out how to overcome the hurdles that don't exist for the Pennsylvanians.

SIMON: What kind of hurdles do you look at there in New York state?

SOARES: Well, for example, in Pennsylvania, they're allowed to convene a grand jury that conducts a multi-county grand jury investigation. We're limited to just looking within our own county. One of the other hurdles that exists - our grand jury rules call for us to investigate matters that are currently prosecutable. And while the issue has not been settled in the state of New York, we have to look and determine whether or not we can even begin an investigation for offenses that are currently barred by the statute of limitations. And once we arrive at conclusions for all those issues, we still have to address the issue of disclosure. Here in the state of New York, if you conduct a grand jury report, every person who is named in the report has standing to block its publication. And so in the state of New York, we would be challenged as to what we can do once that investigation has taken place and the publication of those reports.

SIMON: So somebody - in theory, somebody named in one of these reports could block its release because they don't want - they don't want it to be known.

SOARES: Exactly, and then the issue is still unsettled about those individuals who have passed on.

SIMON: And what about the statute of limitations? Forgive me for not knowing, but what is it in New York for some of the crimes we're potentially talking about?

SOARES: Currently, for a civil proceeding where they're suing the church or the institution or the individual, they have three years after their 18th birthday. So the idea that upon your 18th birthday you have a clock and it begins to tick down and then you by the time you reach your 21st birthday you're going to be in a good place therapeutically to begin addressing what has happened to you. That doesn't happen too often. And so currently in the Child Victims Act proposal, which would extend the criminal statute limitations for 50 years, we think that would be the appropriate remedy. But we do have powerful forces blocking the passage of that legislation in New York currently.

SIMON: What are those powerful forces?

SOARES: Well, you have the diocese. But a little unknown fact is that insurance companies are also a very powerful entity, and they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying our elected officials to prevent the passage of a bill that would begin to review the statute of limitations.

SIMON: If an archdiocese in your area were to be fully cooperative, what could you get from them?

SOARES: Well, historically, they've had their own process in the church. There are so many records, records of individuals who've made claims dating back 20, 30, 40 years. They also have records of where priests were transferred to and so you can begin to build a timeline for the activities. And through those timelines and looking at all those documents, assuming they unredacted, you'd be able to follow the pattern of possibly an abusive priest. So there's a lot to be gleaned there. Now, if the Catholic Church wanted to move on from this issue certainly providing greater disclosure and not putting up the kind of fierce opposition to any kind of progressive legislation on that front would go a long way towards restoring the faith that I know many people have in the institution.

SIMON: You've noted the hurdles for us. What do you see as a path forward?

SOARES: Well, the path forward is for citizens to understand that they still, in this democracy, have the final say. And the choices that they make in primaries and general elections will ultimately determine, you know, the future for legislation that would allow to not only address the harms that have occurred in the past, but it would have enabled us to then move forward and be able to provide relief to other victims of these sexual crimes. So that's the path forward.

SIMON: David Soares is president of the District Attorneys Association of the state of New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SOARES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.