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Suffolk County, N.Y., District Attorney Thomas J. Spota III has been granted permission by the courts to empanel the nation’s first special grand jury to investigate allegations of sexual abuse and child molestation by Roman Catholic priests. To be convened within a month, the special grand jury will have an unusually broad mandate to investigate allegations of abuse and of any cover-up by the Long Island, N.Y., diocese, as well as any false allegations made against the clergy. Spota held a press conference Thursday as national attention has turned toward a rapidly growing number of public complaints about priests in Boston, New York and elsewhere molesting children, mostly boys. Increasingly, those complainants allege church leaders knew about the abuse and covered it up by re-assigning the accused priests to other parishes and not notifying law enforcement. In recent weeks, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office has received “dozens” of calls from alleged victims, a majority reporting the abuse of young boys, and some complaining of recent abuse while others recounted events occurring years ago, said Spota’s spokesman, Robert Clifford. While Spota confirmed his office has been investigating those complaints for the past three weeks, and had subpoenaed related documents from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., he seemed equally concerned Thursday about the potential for false accusations. “I think it’s important to recognize that an overwhelming number of priests perform their sacred ministry with honor, dignity and integrity and are innocent of any wrongdoing,” he said. He added that he believed that in addition to the young victims, “the priests who are innocent of any wrongdoing are suffering as well.” He stressed that his chief assistant, John L. Buonora, and Emily Constant, chief of the Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Bureau, would ferret out the false accusers: “The integrity of the grand jury process is always paramount.” GRAND JURY ORDER The order permitting the special grand jury to convene was approved earlier this week, said David Bookstaver, the Office of Court Administration spokesman. Starting on March 25, it passed up the necessary chain of command from Suffolk’s administrative judge, Justice Alan D. Oshrin, to the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, 2nd Department, Gail Prudenti, and the deputy chief administrator of all courts outside of New York City, Joseph J. Traficanti Jr. The last special grand juries to be convened in Suffolk, about two years ago, investigated allegations of official corruption in the county sheriff’s department and in Babylon Town government. Spota’s predecessor, James M. Catterson Jr., was thought to have been granted such approvals about a dozen times in the past 10 years, said Buonora. A normal grand jury hears multiple, unrelated cases, and its mandate expires at the end of a month. A special grand jury is convened when needed for a longer period of time and to make a more extensive investigation that, like Suffolk’s, typically involves multiple cases with a common theme, but could also hear unrelated cases as the need arises. Buonora said Suffolk’s special grand jury order expires after six months, but could be extended. The order permits the panel of 23 jurors to sit in Hauppauge, Central Islip or Riverhead, N.Y. Rule 128.17 of the Rules of the Chief Administrator (22 NYCRR 128.17) empowers the chief administrative judge and presiding judge to designate the number of grand juries empanelled each term. The statute does not make any distinction for special grand juries or set criteria for approving a request for one. The district attorney’s request was boilerplate, saying one was needed to conduct “investigations into a number of complex criminal matters which are expected to last several months,” and that such a task would overburden a regular grand jury, said Buonora. DIOCESE RESPONDS Spota said Thursday that his office had served the Diocese of Rockville Centre with a grand jury subpoena and received “a number of documents” in return. The diocese attorney, George Rice, of Spellman Walsh Rice Schure & Markus in Garden City, N.Y., said the diocese contacted both Spota and Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon “to work out what they needed and how we could get that to them,” even before the subpoena arrived from Suffolk. He said the diocese was still in the process of fulfilling its demands and had more documents to deliver. If a grand jury is empanelled, Rice acknowledged that “no one is immune from a subpoena,” including the bishop. Last month, Bishop Murphy faced down the growing criticism by announcing that he had reviewed the records of every active priest in the diocese, and found that no priest was on active assignment against whom any “credible” allegation of child abuse had been made. Spota said his office had received “a broad range of information from credible and reliable sources,” and he was “thus far not at all satisfied that with the credibility of the public assertions by the church that it is properly policing its clergy.” He said that was his main reason for seeking permission to empanel a special grand jury which, in addition to handing down indictments, could issue a report calling for “legislative, administrative, or executive action.” At his own press conference on Wednesday, District Attorney Dillon urged lawmakers to be more careful in wording a pending bill that would require clergy to report sexual abuse. He said the problem in the Roman Catholic Church is related to homosexuality and not pedophilia.

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