Could a federal statute created to bring down the Mafia be used against the Catholic Church?

Prosecutors and defense lawyers from Philly's '80s mob cases mull use of RICO.

Steve Tawa
October 19, 2018 - 2:22 pm

Dreamstime

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — While U.S. Justice Department follows up on subpoenas it issued to eight Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania in the priest sex abuse scandal, seeking private files and records, victim advocates point to what they call a culture of silence and coverup. There is some speculation as to whether a tool used to take down mobsters could come into play. 

Former prosecutors and defense lawyers involved in famous Philadelphia mob cases in the 1980s, mostly centering on Nicodemo Scarfo, the former crime family boss, shared some thoughts on whether the feds will employ the federal RICO statute. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, was originally passed to bring down the Mafia.

RELATED: Feds open clergy abuse probe in Pennsylvania

Most agree that it would be "interesting if the feds employ the RICO tool, to go after the upper hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church." To prove a RICO violation, prosecutors must prove a pattern of criminal activity in two or more predicate acts connected to the enterprise. While there may be a statute of limitations dating back just ten years, a former leading prosecutor says if one of them is within the time frame, the others can date back to infinity. He adds the "Roman Catholic Church is as much an enterprise as the mob." 

A well-known defense lawyer points out the subpoenas should produce confidential files and testimony from church leaders, and the key will be whether there is documentation that church leaders covered up the crimes.

A former prosecutor remarked from what he's seen, the church leaders who shuttled predator priests from one parish to another "caused more harm than mobsters," whom he says "inflicted the most damage on others involved in organized crime."

RELATED: Victims' advocates say it's about time for federal investigation into Catholic Church abuses

Many of the allegations in the state grand jury report stretch back decades, some to the 1940s. Because of Pennsylvania's current statute of limitations, just two of the more than 300 priests named in the report were charged.