AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hundreds of Texans reached out to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, asking it to investigate Catholic Diocese in Texas after Pennsylvania’s attorney general launched prosecutions into claims that children were sexually abused.
Paxton’s office’s response: state law doesn’t allow them to investigate.
In an interview with KXAN News, Paxton spokesperson Marc Rylander, says there are constraints on the state office.
“There should be no safer place, not only in Texas, but on earth, than the local church,” Rylander said. “But every state is set up different. Every state has different statues. Some states have the ability to go into an issue where there are reports like these and blow the whole thing up and prosecute and take down. In Texas, the law is set up differently.”
State law doesn’t give the Attorney General primary jurisdiction — also known as original jurisdiction — over these cases. “Primary jurisdiction” is the ability to investigate a local matter alone.
Investigating and prosecuting allegations against priests must begin with local police and district attorneys’ offices, he says. Those agencies must ask the Attorney General to step in to lead or to help on a local crime.
“We have to rely on local district attorneys from the 254 counties in our state to either refer the case to us or ask for our assistance as they investigate and prosecute these cases,” Rylander said.
The law is different in Pennsylvania. There, under title 42, the General Assembly gave the Pennsylvania Attorney General the power to convene a grand jury to investigate organized crime or public corruption involving more than one county in the state. The Pennsylvania Attorney General used that authority to look into the Catholic Diocese.
The Texas Attorney General only has original jurisdiction for allegations of misuse of state property, abuse of office, election law violations and offenses against juveniles in state correctional facilities.
Hundreds of letters sent to Texas Attorney General
“I am a survivor of sexual abuse by clergy. I know firsthand the pain and suffering experienced by those abused at the hands of clergy,” one person said in a letter to the Texas Attorney General’s office. “The pain goes deeper than the sexual abuse itself. It not only involves the spiritual impacts, but also the undue stress associated with the discrediting and minimizing of the abuse by the Catholic Church.”
Multiple men and women who say they were abused by priests are hoping their horrific experiences will catch the attention of the Texas attorney general.
“As a victim of torture and abuse by a priest as a child I implore you to conduct an independent investigation,” another person wrote to the office. “These survivors deserve better from your great state. We all deserve to be heard and justice to be served.”
Through a public information request, KXAN obtained hundreds of detailed messages Texans sent to Paxton urging him to go after clergy who sexually abused children and Catholic church leaders who may have covered up the misconduct.
“The grooming, the gaining of trust of both victim and family, the isolating of the victim. The church does not support the victim. It supports the clergy,” another person wrote. “Many victims, including myself, have gone to their church for justice and healing, only to find a self-serving institution whose only goal is to protect the church and its leaders.”
The attorney general’s office removed the names of self-reported victims prior to releasing the letters to protect their identities. The majority of the messages are from people who say they are lifelong Catholics who are outraged by the news of predator priests around the country.
“I can no longer trust that my children are safe in the state of Texas,” one woman from McKinney wrote.
A woman from Austin said, “I want to see these crimes exposed once and for all.”
The messages started flowing in in August and September after a grand jury report was released by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office that found that more than 1,000 minors were abused by some 300 priests across Pennsylvania over a 70-year period.
A dozen other states have also opened investigations into clergy sex abuse.
Groups like SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, have been telling people to call and write their attorney generals and demand an independent investigation, like the one in Pennsylvania. But the Texas attorney general’s office can’t do anything on its own and has been directing victims to contact their local law enforcement.
Pennsylvania’s ‘Predator Priests’
The year it happened isn’t certain. It was either 1991 or 1992. “Josh” was a 10-year old boy who’d gotten caught “misbehaving” on a school bus.
Josh, as he’s now known, was marched to the principal’s office at his St. Margaret Mary Church school, 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Like every child who caused trouble in school, Josh likely expected to pay a price for not following the rules.
But the punishment the now-37-year-old man got would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Josh never got to see the principal that day. Instead, he saw Father John Sweeney and was forced to perform oral sex on the priest in a church conference room.
Sweeney would become the first priest prosecuted in a massive statewide criminal investigation into Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses.
“There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro told reporters last August. “For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
A statewide grand jury spent two years investigating six of the eight Catholic Church dioceses in Pennsylvania. That investigation was made public in August 2018.
In its aftermath, the grand jury’s 887-page report exposed 301 “predator priests” in those six dioceses. By comparison, the notorious Boston Diocese investigation identified 150 to 200 priests.
“Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands,” the report stated. Most of the victims were boys, according to the findings.
Since 2011, the Pennsylvania Attorney General also launched grand jury investigations into the state’s other two dioceses: Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown. The results of all three investigations found 372 Catholic clergy had abused children in their dioceses.
The abuse wasn’t a secret to church leaders, either, the report found — with evidence uncovered that even the Vatican knew what was going on inside Pennsylvania’s Catholic churches, “But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all,” the report said.
“We are going to name their names and describe what they did – both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve,” the grand jury report stated.
“The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal,’” Attorney General Shapiro told reporters in 2018.
So far, only two prosecutions resulted from the investigation. There would have been more had the state’s statute of limitations not prevented bringing charges.
The first prosecution was for Sweeney, a priest assigned to the Greensburg Diocese. The second is a priest in the Erie Diocese. Both men had sexually abused children within the last 10 years, investigations revealed.
Sweeney spent nearly 50 years in the Greensburg Diocese and was pastor of seven different churches there. Investigators got an anonymous tip in August 2016 that Sweeney had molested “Josh,” that fourth-grade boy in the early 1990s.
Sweeney was charged with a felony and ended up pleading guilty. On Dec. 21, he was sentenced to a minimum of 11.5 months to five years in a Pennsylvania prison.
The second prosecution was of Father David Poulson, who held 14 different pastoral assignments during his 38-years in the Erie Diocese, according to the grand jury report.
Poulson was charged with two felonies in October 2018 for repeated sex assaults of one boy and the attempted assault of a second boy.
“Father Poulson weaponized his faith and used it as a tool to abuse young boys,” Shapiro said during a 2018 press conference announcing Poulson’s charges. The grand jury also found evidence that the Erie Diocese knew of Poulson’s abuse as far back as 2010.
Poulson held seven different assignments since 2010.
In October, Poulson pleaded guilty to two of the three felonies and was sentenced to a minimum of 2.5 to a maximum of 14 years in prison.
“This sends a message to people all over this country are listening—that the era of institutional cover-ups has ended,” Shapiro told reporters at Poulson’s sentencing.