NJ attorney general creates task force to investigate allegations of sex abuse by Catholic priests

Robert D. Laurino

Former Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor,  will lead a new state task force that will investigate allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in New Jersey, and any efforts to cover up such abuse. The state has also created a hotline for victims to report abuse.

Laurino will oversee a team of detectives and prosecutors from across the state’s county prosecutor’s offices and the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.

Attorney General Gurbil Grewal has authorized the task force to present evidence to a state grand jury. He has also authorized the use of subpoenas to compel testimony and the production of documents.

To help identify potential victims, the state has established a new dedicated hotline to report allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. The hotline will be staffed by trained professionals and operate on a 24/7 basis. The toll-free number is 855-363-6548.

The announcement comes after the publication last month of a report by a Pennsylvania grand jury alleging that more than 1,000 people were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests in that state over a 70-year period.  The report,  the result of a multi-year investigation led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, also detailed allegations of a cover-up by church leaders and accusations of sexual abuse against at least four priests who spent part of their ministries in New Jersey.

Last week, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex,  called on the attorney general  to impanel a grand jury to investigate abuse. Mark Crawford, an advocate for victims of abuse, also wrote an editorial calling on the state to take steps to reveal abuse and cover-ups by the church.

“New Jersey lawmakers now have a choice as well: They can choose to protect predators and the powerful institutions that have given them safe haven, or they can choose to protect our children from sexual predators,” Crawford wrote. “I pray our lawmakers have the fortitude to do the latter.”

Grewal said he was deeply troubled to read the allegations contained in last month’s Pennsylvania grand jury report. “The report revealed that sexual assaults on children, and efforts to cover up such assaults, were far more widespread in Pennsylvania than we ever thought possible.,” he said. “We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here. If it did, we will take action against those responsible.”

Grewal vowed to devote all the resources that are necessary to uncover the truth and bring justice to victims. “No person is above the law and no institution is immune from accountability,” he said.

In addition to investigating allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, the task force will conduct a comprehensive review of existing agreements between the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey and state law enforcement. In 2002, each of the state’s dioceses entered into a memorandum of understanding with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and various county prosecutors’ offices.  The agreements mandated that the dioceses establish policies and procedures to ensure that their leaders and employees report information to prosecutors about potential cases of sexual abuse within their churches and cooperate in any resulting law enforcement investigations. The task force will determine whether the dioceses complied with the mandatory reporting requirements and whether any additional action is necessary.

“We want victims to know that we stand ready to investigate their cases and will do everything in our power to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice,” said Division of Criminal Justice Director Veronica Allende. “The key is obtaining adequate evidence, and we urge anyone with information about sexual abuse by members of the clergy to contact us confidentially through our new hotline.”

More information about the task force is available at www.nj.gov/oag/clergy-abuse.