Acting New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood speaks in Albany...

Acting New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood speaks in Albany in May. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

The New York attorney general's office has subpoenaed the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses as part of an investigation into sexual abuse of children by clergy, church officials said Thursday. 

The subpoenas are part of a civil investigation into whether the dioceses covered up allegations of extensive sexual abuse of minors, a source familiar with the investigation said.

They also come after the August release of an explosive grand jury report by the Pennsylvania state attorney general detailing the alleged sexual abuse of at least 1,000 children by about 300 priests over a 70-year period.

“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover ups in the dioceses," New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood said Thursday in a statement. "Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well and we are going to do everything in our power to bring them the justice they deserve." 

Sex abuse victims advocates hailed the decision, saying it was a major breakthrough they hope will lead to a similar grand jury report in New York. 

Richard Tollner, who said he was sexually abused by a priest in Uniondale in the mid-1970s, said he was "elated" by the state's investigation.

“This is very good news for victims, their families, and those out there who still feel that the church hasn’t met up to its burden" of telling the full truth about the abuse, Tollner said. 

A spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which ministers to 1.5 million Catholics on Long Island, said Thursday the diocese had received a subpoena and was reviewing the document with its lawyers. 

The diocese "has long cooperated with local law enforcement authorities in reporting and investigating child sexual abuse and we anticipate that such cooperation will continue," spokesman Sean Dolan said in a statement.

Also on Thursday, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, which stretches from Manhattan to update Ulster County, said it had received a subpoena.

"It is not a surprise to us that the Attorney General would look to begin a civil investigation," spokesman Joseph Zwilling said in a statement, "and she will find the Archdiocese of New York, and the other seven dioceses in the state, ready and eager to work together with her in the investigation."

In a letter to Underwood, William Donohue, president of the Manhattan-based Catholic League, said the state attorney was singling out the Catholic Church and not investigating other institutions, both religious and secular.

The move "is manifestly unjust and indefensible," Donohue wrote in the letter. "Are you saying that the sexual abuse of minors is peculiar to Catholic institutions?" 

Pressure has built on the Catholic Church this summer to address the sex abuse scandal. Pope Francis himself recently faced accusations by a former Vatican diplomat that he ignored sex abuse allegations against former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick — a leading figure in the U.S. Catholic Church. McCarrick allegedly sexually abused adult seminarians. The diplomat, Carlo Maria Vigano, called on Francis to resign.

With Catholics increasingly angered and calling for more transparency, law enforcement officials nationwide are stepping in to seek more disclosure.

On Thursday, New Jersey announced it will investigate clergy sex abuse of children, joining Illinois, Missouri, New York and Nebraska.

Underwood lacks the power to take criminal action but in August, her office's criminal division said it was seeking to partner with district attorneys statewide to investigate and, if warranted, prosecute any individuals who have committed criminal offenses. District attorneys are the only authorities with the power to convene grand juries for investigations into criminal matters.

The attorney general noted that many cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy may not be subject to prosecution because of New York’s statutes of limitations. Under current law, victims have until age 23 to file civil suits or seek criminal charges for most types of child sexual abuse, Underwood said. Some of the most serious child sex crimes have no time limit for bringing criminal charges, but that applies only to abuse that occurred in 2001 or later.  

Underwood said she has repeatedly urged the legislature to pass the Child Victims Act, which would allow all victims to file civil suits until age 50 and seek criminal charges until age 28.

"Make no mistake: the only way that justice can fully and truly be served is for the legislature to finally pass the Child Victims Act,” she said.

The State Assembly has passed the act in the past, but it has languished in the State Senate. The Catholic Church has vigorously opposed passage of it, saying it could bankrupt the church by opening it to multimillion-dollar court settlements.

Instead, several dioceses, including New York and Rockville Centre, have launched Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Programs in which victims receive financial compensation but must agree not to sue the church. The amounts awarded are far less than what victims might receive in court cases, according to attorneys who have handled such cases.

Victims are urged to take part in the civil investigation, "even if they believe that their information may be outside the statute of limitations for a court case," Underwood's office said in a statement. "All victim information will be helpful to understanding and reforming the institutional approach of the Church, regardless of whether an individual case can be prosecuted."

The attorney general's office also on Thursday launched a hotline and online complaint form for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and others with information.

Underwood said victims and others with information can call the clergy abuse hotline at 800-771-7755 or file a complaint online at

“An investigator will review all allegations; the Attorney General and our law enforcement partners will seek to protect victims’ and witnesses’ identities,” the statement from the attorney general's office said.

Since 2002, the Archdiocese of New York has shared with the 10 district attorneys within its area all information requested, "and has established excellent working relationships with each of them," Zwilling said. "Not only do we provide any information they seek, they also notify us as well when they learn of an allegation of abuse, so that, even if they cannot bring criminal charges, we might investigate and remove from ministry any cleric who has a credible and substantiated allegation of abuse."

John Salveson, who alleges he was 13 when a priest at St. Dominic's Catholic Church in Oyster Bay sexually abused him starting in 1969, said Underwood's decision was great news.

“The missing piece in this issue has been the civil and criminal authorities getting involved, the attorneys general, to hold these institutions accountable," he said. "This is what should happen in every single state."

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