PITTSBURGH — A federal prosecutor may file a racketeering lawsuit against a Roman Catholic diocese where a state grand jury found two former bishops helped cover up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 clergy over a 40-year period.
The ongoing investigation of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese grew out of the prosecution of the Rev. Joseph Maurizio Jr., US Attorney David Hickton said Friday.
The 71-year-old Somerset County priest was convicted last year of molesting two street children during missionary trips to Honduras. He was sentenced to nearly 17 years in prison, fined $50,000, and forced to pay his victims $10,000 each.
Hickton said the ongoing investigation concerns whether diocesan officials engaged in a pattern of criminal activity that would fall under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO.
The statute of limitations has lapsed on criminal racketeering charges, but there is no time limit for filing a RICO civil lawsuit, Hickton said. KDKA-TV first reported that Hickton was considering such a lawsuit. A diocesan spokesman did not immediately comment.
''The remedy that would be available under a civil RICO would be some sort of injunctive relief,'' Hickton said. ''If we were able to get a consent decree, that would be one route.''
Injunctive relief, in this case, would be a court order requiring the diocese to take certain actions. A consent decree is a voluntary agreement between prosecutors and a target that certain reforms would be enacted.
A grand jury, in a report released last month, was especially critical of Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec. Hogan, who headed the diocese from 1966 to 1986, died in 2005. Adamec, who succeeded him, retired in 2011.
The grand jury found Hogan, in particular, held sway over police and prosecutors in the diocese and often reassigned priests accused of molesting children instead of removing them from duty. Adamec threatened accusers with excommunication and generally worked harder to hide or settle abuse allegations than to discipline the priests accused, the grand jury found.
An attorney for Adamec denied wrongdoing and said 14 priests accused of molestation under Adamec's watch were given psychiatric screenings. Nine were suspended or removed, and the five who were returned to ministry didn't reoffend, Adamec's attorney said.
Hickton won't say what he believes church officials may have done wrong.
Kane's report grew out of allegations that a Franciscan friar, who has since killed himself, molested dozens of students at a school in the diocese from 1992 to 2000.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represented dozens of those victims, said he favors the RICO lawsuit even though many of his victims ''would find incarceration for the supervisors more suitable.''
''I think the tactic is an approach that must be taken given the depth and scope of the supervisors enabling sexual abuse,'' Garabedian said. If a consent decree is reached, ''many victims would like to see a complete admission of guilt, and perhaps an independent supervisor appointed to review the activities of the diocese.''
Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at St. Vincent College near Latrobe, said the RICO Act is used to target individuals who ''operated or managed an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity.''
To prove that, a prosecutor must show the target committed specific crimes listed in the act — including murder, extortion, and robbery. Mail fraud — essentially using the mail in any step of a fraud — or extortion are other RICO crimes that could conceivably relate.
According to the grand jury report, a whistle-blower accused Maurizio in 2009 of abusing the boys, and the diocese conducted its own investigation, including hiring a translator to review the victim's claims.
Diocesan records ''show a high-ranking Diocesan official concluding the alleged conduct was 'impossible,''' the report said.