The investigation comes after the release of a sweeping U.S. grand jury report in August that revealed credible allegations against more than 300 suspected predator priests and identified over 1,000 victims of child sex abuse covered up for decades by the Catholic Church in the state of Pennsylvania. The abuse allegedly was covered up by church leaders. Crux reports that there are no indications of a nationwide probe, but that may change if other states uncover similar behavior or if the subpoenas turn up that evidence on their own.
RICO has historically been used to dismantle organized-crime syndicates. Other dioceses did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
The inquiry is believed to be the first statewide investigation by the federal government of the church's sex abuse scandal.
"There is a consensus rising, which is this just has to stop".
The files requested of at least one diocese date back only to 2001, the official said. "It was time for them to step up and do something".
The federal investigation follows a sweeping grand jury report released in August by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office that found that more than 1,000 minors were abused by some 300 priests across Pennsylvania over a 70-year period. The focus involves alleged trafficking of minors across state lines for the objective of sex abuse.
Peter Isely, who was abused and is a spokesman for Ending Clergy Abuse, has been pushing for federal investigation for 15 years.
It is a "very hard time for the church and for Catholics and also for many of their pastors and priests", Soto said.
Only two priests were charged as a result of the grand jury investigation because the statute of limitations had passed.
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Last month, two of those advocacy groups - the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the Center for Constitutional Rights - sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein demanding federal action. "It's potentially enormous", he said.
The subpoenas seek documents stored in "Secret Archives", "Historical Archives" or "Confidential Files", and records related to the dioceses' organizational charts, finances, insurance, clergy assignments and treatment of priests.
Thus far, only the US Attorneys for Philadelphia and Buffalo have issued subpoenas - for now.
A spokeswoman for McSwain declined to comment.
Pennsylvania is not the only state where federal prosecutors are investigating clergy abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
"It's groundbreaking if we're going to see one of the U.S. attorneys pursuing the Catholic cases", said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and chief executive of Child USA, a nonprofit think tank focused on preventing child abuse.
She said such action would be important. "I hope that they can find a way to make it fit, but it will be challenging", she said.
Soto said he was uncertain if it would be possible to compile a list of any staff or other priests who helped abusers escape punishment by covering up allegations.
Prosecutors would have to prove that the church directly invested in, maintained an interest in, or participated in the criminal behavior affecting interstate, even foreign commerce.
"Pennsylvania might be the first state where the federal government does this", Tobias said. "It is my commitment to build on the efforts of the past and continue to improve upon them".