Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is among 14 state attorneys general, plus the District of Columbia, investigating the Catholic Church in the wake of an explosive August report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)

The explosive report about sexual abuse by Catholic priests unveiled by a Pennsylvania grand jury in August has set off an unprecedented wave of investigations over the last several months, with attorneys general in 14 states and the District of Columbia announcing probes and demanding documents from Catholic officials. Those efforts have been joined by a federal investigation out of Philadelphia that may become national in scope.

The swift and sweeping response by civil authorities contrasts sharply with the Vatican’s comparatively glacial pace. While some U.S. dioceses have published lists of priests they say have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and two cardinals have been ousted, the Vatican this month put on hold a vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on measures to hold bishops more accountable until after a global synod in early 2019. In the meantime, Rome has done little to address the crisis.

“The Catholic Church has proven that it cannot police itself,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D), whose state is among those investigating. “And civil authorities can’t let the church hide child sexual abuse allegations as personnel matters. They’re crimes. We need a full accounting of the church.”

The new investigations are taking place in a very different climate than existed in 2002, when the Boston Globe exposed decades of abuse and coverups in that city. Many lay Catholics have lost faith in the church’s ability to right itself and are pushing for civil authorities to hold high-ranking church officials accountable. There’s also a greater willingness by law enforcement to do battle with a church that has become a far less formidable local presence. And the graphic grand jury report has spurred widespread public outrage.

However, hope for action won’t be satisfied quickly. Following an initial flurry of news conferences and calls to hotlines set up for the public to report abuse, there is likely to be an extended period of silence while prosecutors gather evidence.

State and federal prosecutors have three tools at their disposal: criminal charges against allegedly guilty priests or even the bishops believed to have abetted their abuse, civil suits against individuals or larger church entities, and public reports that expose the names and deeds of accused abusers without formal action.

As authorities launch their investigations, often involving episodes that are decades old, they make no promises about where their probes will ultimately lead.

“Will they get many prosecutions out of it? Probably not,” said Marci Hamilton, executive director of Child USA, a think tank dedicated to stopping child abuse. “In most circumstances, the statute of limitations has expired, or the evidence is circumstantial.”

She noted, however, that the attorneys general are likely to extract plenty of new information in their states and that the reports they generate, much like Pennsylvania’s, “will be good for painting a picture for the public to understand that this is a systemic problem. It’s a real positive step in the right direction.”

Despite obstacles, many attorneys general are seeking to bring criminal cases, both to punish offenders and draw public attention to sexual abuse by clergy members.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D), who oversaw the grand jury that issued the bombshell report, said he has since spoken with 40 of his colleagues around the country and urged them to be aggressive in mining the church’s archives and filing charges. After the 2002 crisis, many states expanded their criminal statutes, and 41 states, the District and the federal government now have no time limits for at least some child sexual abuse charges, according to Child USA.

“The church shouldn’t get to play by different rules,” Shapiro told The Washington Post editorial board, “and for too long they’ve been allowed to play by different rules.”

The church’s response to the civil actions has been mixed. Some Catholic officials complain that the church has been unfairly targeted. Diocesan lawyers are pushing back behind the scenes, for example resisting changes to state statutes of limitations. At the same time, most bishops have publicly voiced support for the probes.

“If they say we need to do something different, we will,” said Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, of Chicago. “We shouldn’t be afraid of admitting mistakes and fixing things.”

The wheels begin to turn

The result of a two-year investigation, the 800-page Pennsylvania grand-jury report was graphic in detailing alleged incidents of sexual molestation of about 1000 children by more than 300 priests in six dioceses. In strong language, it openly condemned the church’s role in covering up the abuse. Archbishop Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington was forced to retire after allegations that he covered up clergy sex abuse in Pittsburgh when he was bishop there.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls,” the grand jury wrote, “and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing, they hid it all. For decades.”

It didn’t take long for many of the country’s top law enforcement officials to capitalize on the outrage the report sparked.

Since the report’s release Aug. 14, attorneys general in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, D.C., have launched criminal investigations into the church.

In Illinois, Madigan said that her staff has received hundreds of emails and calls to its reporting hotline for victims since August, and that she has reviewed about half of them.

“They are sad, profound, horrible stories,” she told The Post. “Some are people who were victimized years ago and never said anything.”

The ability of the attorneys general to investigate and act on reports of abuse is limited by jurisdiction and statutes of limitations that apply to criminal and civil cases.

Even in the majority of states where criminal statutes for child abuse crimes are not a significant barrier, not all attorneys general have the power to prosecute the cases.

In Nebraska, for example, the attorney general “has a long history of investigating and prosecuting child abuse and child sexual assault cases throughout the state,” spokeswoman Suzanne Gage said.

By contrast, in Missouri, criminal jurisdiction lies with local prosecutors, so Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), who was elected this month to the U.S. Senate, requested Catholic dioceses voluntarily turn over “all evidence that would be gained with subpoena power,” spokeswoman Mary Compton said.

That’s a less-than-ideal approach because it allows church officials to withhold documents if they are inclined, said Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general.

Shapiro was able to use an authority few attorneys general have — the ability to impanel a statewide grand jury — to subpoena documents from churches across Pennsylvania.

But some diocesan lawyers have warned that grand-jury reports are dangerous because they imply guilt when none has been proved in court.

Kim Viti Fiorentino, the Washington archdiocese’s lawyer, said the “flawed process” of such a report, without due process, “fails the survivors,” and thus the whole document should be questioned.

Civil lawsuits are another hammer prosecutors can use, and the level of proof is lower: A preponderance of the evidence, or just more than half of the proof, is accepted, rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal cases.

The statutes of limitations on civil actions are much narrower. In most states, there’s a limit of no more than five years from the time of the alleged acts, and some states have limits as short as two years. Advocates are calling for states to expand time limits or create new windows of availability for victims of sexual abuse, but so far even in Pennsylvania that movement has not made much progress. Of 15 states considering such changes this year, only two legislatures extended the civil statute of limitations, although Child USA’s Hamilton says New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are likely to next year.

“The most information the public ever gets is from the civil lawsuits,” Hamilton said, because defendants are required to answer questions and provide documentation, unlike in criminal cases.

Prosecutors’ access to church archives and the resulting public reports citing the names and actions of the abusers also have great value, advocates say.

The lists assist victims who may still have viable legal claims, and for those whose cases are too old for legal recourse, “it helps those victims feel vindicated,” Hamilton said.

While some dioceses have begun publishing lists on their own, many Catholics and victim advocates are skeptical about how far the church will go in excavating its past.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, who in the early 2000s chaired the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the lay board recommended in 2004 that the church post the names of abusers and that it include adults as victims. While some have done so over the years, most never did.

“People are still wondering: Who are the abusers?” Burke said. “Are they still in ministry? . . . Civil authorities are the only vehicle so we can know for sure.”

Many attorneys general said they will be publishing the names of those credibly accused of abuse at the end of their investigations.

“We owed it to the residents of New Jersey, and the victims of New Jersey, to find out if there are victims and predator priests here,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal (D) said in an interview, echoing many of his colleagues. “I think the end is going to be dictated largely by what the investigation yields. If viable charges are there, and the statute allows it, we’ll bring those.”

Impact on the Catholic Church

Experts who work with U.S. dioceses on financial and legal matters say church leaders are worried about the growing list of state investigations and aren’t sure where the effort is heading — and what it could mean.

The largest financial and criminal implications depend, experts said, on whether more states open windows in their statutes of limitation and whether the Justice Department, with its investigation in Philadelphia, expands its look at the church. Last month, federal prosecutors sent a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops instructing the group to preserve all abuse-related records nationwide.

Charles E. Zech, of the Center for the Study of Church Management at the Villanova School of Business, said most bishops or diocesan officials probably won’t welcome the probes.

“The church is very secretive. The fact that they have to open their records, to show the public what’s happened in the past — good or bad. It’s the nature of clericalism” to buck against this, Zech said.

Many are particularly unwilling to share accountability with laypeople, he added.

The disagreement among bishops regarding the involvement of laypeople was evident at the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week in Baltimore.

“These probes will damage a lot of reputations,” Zech said, noting that since the early 2000s, the U.S. church has spent about $4 billion to pay victims’ settlements and the church’s attorney’s fees.

Zech doubted the financial impact would be crippling to the U.S. church unless more states chose to extend their statutes of limitations for civil suits.

He predicted more states will open probes because it’s “a political windfall.” The public — Catholics included — have no faith in the moral standing of the bishops and want the cases to see light, Zech said.

The investigations also are welcomed by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national group.

“The church, after 16 years, has had ample opportunity and time to right the ship,” said Mark Crawford, the director of SNAP’s New Jersey office.

Now it’s time for the state to remedy problems the church has failed to fix — starting with making public the name of every priest accused of abuse in New Jersey, he said.

However, Crawford said he would prefer to see statutes of limitation lifted, so these men could be not only named but punished. “State investigations across the country, that’s only half of it. Where’s the justice for those victims?” he said. “That’s the part where our lawmakers need to find the fortitude to stand up — regardless of this large, iconic institution — to say this needs to be fixed.”

When he reported his own abuser to his diocese, Crawford said, he got the sense that the leaders were stalling so that the statute of limitations would expire. “When I had first told them, he’d be in jail to this day. But now he’s a free man because they waited for the criminal statute of limitations to expire.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of priests accused of sexually abusing children in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. This version has been corrected.