Barbara Underwood, is the first woman to serve as Attorney General in the State of New York. She met with the New York Law Journal on Friday, June 15, 2018 at her office in Manhattan...(Photo by David Handschuh/NYLJ) Barbara Underwood, New York attorney general. Photo: David Handschuh/ALM

The New York Attorney General’s Office has issued civil subpoenas as part of its civil investigation into cases of child sex abuse in the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses, a source familiar with the investigation confirmed Thursday.

The investigation, led by the attorney general’s charities bureau, is examining whether officials within the Catholic Church potentially covered up allegations of extensive sexual abuse of minors over several years.

The civil probe in New York comes in the wake of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania, which was unsealed on Aug. 14, alleging more than 300 clergy members sexually abused more than 1,000 victims over a period of decades.

“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,” Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a statement on the investigation. “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.”

A spokesman for the New York Archdiocese said in a statement they haven’t seen a subpoena yet, but that the Catholic Church is ready and willing to work with Underwood on the investigation.

“While we have not yet seen a subpoena, it is not a surprise to us that the attorney general would look to begin a civil investigation, 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,” said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York. The attorney for the archdiocese is James McCabe. 

Underwood’s office can not independently pursue criminal charges against officials of the Catholic Church. That responsibility, if presented, would fall to the state’s district attorneys, who are the only officials with the power to convene grand juries to investigate and potentially prosecute individuals on child sex abuse charges.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who is president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, said last month that the state’s prosecutors will work jointly with Underwood’s office on any investigations of child sex abuse. He said the same in a statement on Thursday.

“I continue to encourage District Attorneys in all counties to work with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Diocese,” Soares said. “Past victims and current victims deserve to have their complaints aggressively investigated and those who have committed these horrific crimes must be held accountable.”

Zwilling said Catholic Church officials have established a good working relationship with the state’s prosecutors, having previously cooperated with them on investigations.

“Since 2002, the archdiocese has shared with its 10 district attorneys all information they have sought concerning allegations of sexual abuse of minors, 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.

Charges could be difficult to pursue in many cases under current state law. Victims of child sex abuse only have until age 23 to pursue criminal charges against their alleged abuser. Civil claims must also be filed by that time.

Underwood urged the Legislature on Thursday to pass a bill that would extend the statute of limitations in those cases. The Child Victims Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, would extend the criminal statute of limitations until age 28 and allow civil claims until age 50.

The bill has passed in the Assembly but stalled in the state Senate where Republicans hold a slim majority. Sen. Cathy Young, R-Cattaraugus, introduced an alternative proposal late during this year’s legislative session that would have used asset forfeiture funds from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office to pay civil claims to victims after a hearing process. That bill also hasn’t moved.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has opposed the Child Victims Act, calling a provision of the bill that would allow older victims to pursue claims for a year after the bill’s approval “toxic” after a meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year.

Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger said on Thursday before news of the subpoenas surfaced that his diocese had already decided to invite Soares to review their records as part of any investigation into child sex abuse within the Catholic Church.

“I believe a fully independent investigation, one coordinated by the district attorney, is the only way forward,” Scharfenberger wrote. “So many people have questions about transparency and about the process. We need a thorough review of our records in order to objectively answer those questions.”

A spokeswoman for Scharfenberger said they have not yet seen the subpoena from Underwood’s office, but that they “look forward to working with her” on the investigation.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester said they have received the subpoena from Underwood’s office and are reviewing it.

“We have a longstanding policy of cooperation with law enforcement and certainly it will continue in this process,” the spokesman said. “We encourage all victims to report to civil authorities. We report to civil authorities allegations of the sexual abuse of a minor.”