Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson is not just asking for Catholic Church sex abuse records anymore; he’s demanding them.
Peterson’s office had subpoenas served Tuesday on more than 400 Catholic parishes, schools and other institutions across Nebraska. The subpoenas demanded “all records or information related to any child sexual assault or abuse that has occurred by those employed or associated with each church or institution, whether previously reported or not,” the attorney general’s office said.
Law enforcement officers fanned out across the expanse of Nebraska to hand-deliver the papers beginning Tuesday morning.
“It was comprehensive in its reach,” said Suzanne Gage, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.
The Archdiocese of Omaha issued a statement that said it is cooperating with the subpoenas.
“The Archdiocese of Omaha is aware of the subpoenas that have been issued to Nebraska Catholic schools and parishes,” the statement said. “We are cooperating with the attorney general’s office, and we are in communication with the attorney general about the timeline to respond and the scope of the subpoena.”
A spokeswoman for the Grand Island diocese said she didn’t have a comment, but that the bishop would make a statement at a later time. The Lincoln diocese didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Peterson last year had asked Nebraska’s three Roman Catholic bishops to voluntarily give him their records of sex abuse from the past 40 years.
The bishops of Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island had sent Peterson files. In Omaha, Archbishop George Lucas made many of those records public.
It’s unclear why Peterson escalated the request into a legal order to produce documents, and expanded it beyond diocesan headquarters to individual parishes and schools.
The Attorney General’s Office said in a statement that it appreciated the voluntary handing over of some records, but still felt the need for the subpoenas.
The office “believes that subpoenas are necessary in order to ensure all reports of impropriety have been submitted to the appropriate authorities. It is our goal that all reports of abuse are subject to complete law enforcement review and investigation as warranted,” the statement said.
Gage, the attorney general’s spokeswoman, said she couldn’t expand further about why the office issued the subpoenas. Similar probes in other states have led to grand jury investigations or criminal charges. Asked where the Nebraska probe is headed, Gage said she could not speculate.
An Omaha archdiocesan official had described a records search back in December as thorough, albeit conducted internally. A seven-member committee composed almost entirely of clergy — there was one woman on the committee — all with backgrounds in church or canon law went through more than 100 years of personnel files.
The Rev. Scott Hastings, vicar for clergy, said the committee was tasked with looking for any sexualized behavior. He had said this was an exhaustive process that required reading the fine print of files because it wasn’t like they were specially marked or necessarily easy to spot. Some files were so old they were written in Latin.
The committee then essentially divided their findings into two groups: 38 names of priests and deacons who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse or misdeeds involving a minor; 100 more names where claims were not as clear-cut.
This second group was not made public and alleged offenses included claims involving adults, clergymen or Catholic school teachers who had affairs or unsubstantiated claims against clergymen who are now dead.
The first group of names was made public, and in December, Hastings speculated that the “38” number wasn’t fixed. He called the list of accused a “living” document and said it was likely to change as publicity encouraged more victims to come forward.
“Are there others beyond the 38?” he’d asked then. “It’s more than 38.”
In early December, the Lincoln diocese had said a lay board of men and women was operating independently of the diocese to review prior allegations of clergy sexual misconduct or abuse.
And Grand Island Bishop Joe Hanefeldt had said at the time the diocese’s attorney had found no substantiated claims of abuse of minors but had a handful of questionable cases that were turned over to the state.
Last month, a priest of the Grand Island Diocese, the Rev. John Kakkuzhiyil, was arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault of a woman.
World-Herald staff writer Erin Grace contributed to this report.