(Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into child sex abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, six Roman Catholic Church dioceses said on Thursday.
The investigation is the first statewide probe by federal authorities of allegations of sex abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church in the United States, according to groups representing abuse victims.
The Church in Chile, Australia and Ireland is also reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors with surveys showing the scandal has eroded confidence in the Church and Pope.
The Pennsylvania dioceses said they had received federal subpoenas following a state grand jury report that alleged over 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused children over 70 years. The Associated Press first reported the Justice Department investigation on Thursday.
The dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton said they were cooperating with the investigation but declined further comment.
The Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia declined to comment.
An 884-page report made public in August by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro after a two-year investigation contained graphic examples of children being groomed and sexually abused by clergymen. Shapiro said at the time that it was largely based on documents from secret archives kept by the dioceses, including handwritten confessions by priests.
The report cited 301 priests, some of whom have died.
Tim Lennon, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the investigation was long overdue. Four statewide grand juries in Pennsylvania since 2003 identified around 500 alleged sexual predators among acting or former Catholic clergy, he said.
“In what other institution could you have 500 criminals and not be prosecuted?” asked Lennon, who said he was raped by a Catholic priest when he was a child.
Lennon said SNAP had asked the federal government three times since 2002 for a nationwide investigation of 15,000 active or retired Catholic clergy accused of being sexual predators.
“This is a first. Federal law enforcement has been awfully silent on the Catholic abuse problem, and it’s about time,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based resource center that tracks cases of clerical abuse worldwide.
She said the only other U.S. federal probe was of a bishop in Boston in the early 2000s.
In September, U.S. Catholic bishops said they would set up a hotline for accusations of sexual abuse against bishops and other church leaders, or allegations of cover ups by such people.
Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Toni Reinhold