PHILADELPHIA — The US Justice Department has opened an investigation of child sexual abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, using subpoenas to demand confidential files and testimony from church leaders, according to two people familiar with the probe.
The subpoenas, served last week, follow a scathing state grand jury report over the summer that found that 301 ‘‘predator priests’’ in Pennsylvania had molested more than 1,000 children over several decades and that church leaders had covered up for the offenders.
Now federal prosecutors are bringing the Justice Department’s resources to bear, according to two people who were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia, who issued the subpoenas, wants to know if priests, bishops, seminarians or others committed any federal crimes.
He demanded the bishops turn over any evidence that anyone in their ranks took children across state lines for illicit purposes; sent sexual images or messages via phone or computer; instructed anyone not to contact police; reassigned suspected predators; or used money or other assets as part of the scandal.
The grand jury subpoenas also seek documents stored in ‘‘Secret Archives,’’ ‘’Historical Archives’’ or ‘‘Confidential Files,’’ and records related to the dioceses’ organizational charts, finances, insurance coverage, clergy assignments, treatment and other documents, according to the people who spoke to the AP.
A representative for McSwain declined to comment, as did a Justice Department spokeswoman.
‘‘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 and chief executive of Child USA, a nonprofit think tank focused on preventing child abuse. ‘‘The federal government has so far been utterly silent on the Catholic cases.’’
Though local prosecutors generally handle child sex abuse cases, federal prosecutors can step in at times. McSwain’s predecessors have been aggressive in pursuing international ‘‘sex tourism’’ cases in recent years, once bringing teenage boys from the Eastern European nation of Moldova to Philadelphia to testify, through translators, about an American businessman who preyed on them.
A law professor warned it is premature to assume a Justice Department investigation will necessarily reach higher up the church hierarchy than earlier probes or end with more serious charges.
‘‘Because federal law enforcement is investigating something doesn’t always mean it is more serious or a bigger crime,’’ said Mary Graw Leary, who teaches at Catholic University’s law school. ‘‘Sometimes it just means there’s a federal question.’’