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story.lead_photo.caption Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley

Document: Jefferson City bishop's letter to attorney general

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The Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City has asked Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley's office to conduct an investigation into whether clergy have committed abuse in the diocese.

Hawley announced Thursday that his will conduct an independent investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy in the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis. At the time, he said he would reach out to other dioceses in the state to see if they too would invite him to conduct an independent review.

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of the Jefferson City Diocese did so within a few hours of the announcement.

"The protection of the vulnerable is one of my highest priorities and transparency is essential to meeting this priority," McKnight said in a letter to Hawley.

McKnight told the attorney general that as soon as he was installed as bishop this past February, he engaged a firm comprised of former FBI and law enforcement agents to review files of all active clergy and seminarians "to ensure that all who minister are ministering in the diocese are appropriate to do so."

That review was completed this June, he said in the letter.

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"While we were preparing to release a full report, which would have included not just information on our current situation, but also historical information, we will suspend that effort to allow you to begin your investigation immediately," he told the attorney general.

Hawley announced the effort in St. Louis in a Thursday conference call with reporters. He said while he didn't have the authority to conduct investigations, he could do so if an individual diocese requested it.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of the St. Louis Archdiocese made such a written request earlier in the day.

"I now invite you to review our files for the purpose of making an independent determination of our handling of allegations of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Louis," the request stated.

The investigation comes in response to a recent grand jury in Pennsylvania reporting that Catholic bishops and other leaders in the state covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over 70 years.

The Diocese of Jefferson City extends north to Putnam, Schulyer, Scotland and Clark counties along the Iowa state line and is bordered on the south by Hickory, Camden, Pulaski, Phelps and Crawford counties.

McKnight told the attorney general in his letter that he already had committed to transparency in letters to local Catholics and welcomed assistance making the Catholic Church a safe environment.

 

In a letter he wrote Aug. 17, he said he felt it was necessary that he followed up with the diocese on statements he had made earlier about revelations about the alleged abuse of power by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C.

"What we are witnessing is not simply the sexual immorality of certain deacons, priests and bishops, but more egregiously, their abuse of power," he wrote. "What is clear from the McCarrick scandal and the tragedy of the Pennsylvania grand jury reports is that some of my brother bishops, going all the way to the Vatican, failed in their obligation to protect the people of God."

McKnight called the abuse the most important issue facing the church.

He said he is committed to the promotion of greater healing within the entire church and to the revision of how it addressed the sins of abuse.

"One thing for sure," he wrote, "we will be a different church."

The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph told the Associated Press it would cooperate with an investigation if requested by the Attorney General's Office. A message from the AP seeking comment from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was not immediately returned Thursday.

In his response to Carlson's request, Hawley said, the Attorney General's Office will assemble a team of "experienced attorneys and career prosecutors to ensure a vigorous, searching and comprehensive inquiry."

The team is to be run by Christine Krug, who was a long-time sex-crimes prosecutor in St. Louis, Hawley said. Her team will review documents and interview potential victims and witnesses to acts of alleged abuse.

David Clohessy, former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an organization established to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse, called for the publication of the names of all clerics who committed or concealed sex crimes. He said voluntary participation isn't enough for an investigation like the one Hawley's office is undertaking; it needs subpoena power.

Clohessy sued the Diocese of Jefferson City in 1991, claiming the Rev. John Whiteley, of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Moberly, abused him in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was 12-16 years old. The case went to the state Supreme Court, but the statute of limitations had passed. In 2015, Clohessy said he had received a check from the church for $40,000 but had to promise never to sue the church again. Then-Bishop John Gaydos said in a news release at the time that the church had extended an apology to Clohessy and gave him a check for an undisclosed amount to help him in the healing process.

"The church's first duty is to protect the kids," Clohessy said. "Kids can't protect themselves."

Publishing names of abusers would protect children because they and their parents would then know where the dangers lie, he said.

"Every diocese should have a whistleblower reward fund to encourage whistleblowers to call if they see or suspect abuse," Clohessy said.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report has brought victims forward across the country, he said.

People in Missouri who may be victims or may have witnessed abuse are encouraged to fill out a Clergy Abuse Victim Form on the attorney general's website at ago.mo.gov/other-resources/clergy-abuse-resources.

"I am heartened by the archdiocese's willingness to cooperate with my office," Hawley said. "It will help us expose and address any wrongdoing."

He said the St. Louis Archdiocese has shown willingness to turn over any information necessary.

Many of the offenses noted in the Pennsylvania grand jury report had passed the state's statute of limitations, where child victims of sexual crimes may pursue criminal charges against abusers until victims are 50. Victims may pursue civil cases until they are 30.

Limitations are always a danger, Hawley said.

"That is one of the reasons we want to start on this as soon as possible," he said. "We'll move as quickly as possible to get the facts."

In Pennsylvania, the church had a pattern of moving alleged sexual predators around and concealing what some clergy had done for years, according to the grand jury report. Hawley said investigators will look at current and historical practices of the St. Louis Archdiocese to create as thorough a report as possible.

Once the investigation is complete, the office will publish its report.

"The end goal here is a document for the public," Hawley said, "so they can see exactly what we gathered."

If the investigation finds criminal wrongdoing, the Attorney General's Office will turn over its findings to local prosecutors.

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