PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Federal prosecutors have opened an investigation of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, using subpoenas to demand secret files and testimony from high-ranking leaders in what victims' advocates say is the first such probe ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department.
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 seven decades and that church leaders had covered up for the offenders.
The intervention by the federal government opens a new front of legal peril for the Catholic church, given that investigations into sexual abuse by clergy members have historically been handled exclusively by state and local authorities.
"It's groundbreaking if we're going to see one of the U.S. attorneys pursuing the Catholic cases," said Marci Hamilton, a church-state expert at the 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."
At least seven of the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Erie, Greensburg, Allentown and Harrisburg — acknowledged receiving subpoenas and said they would cooperate or were working with Justice Department officials.
"This subpoena is no surprise considering the horrific misconduct detailed in the statewide grand jury report," the Greensburg Diocese said in a statement. "Survivors, parishioners and the public want to see proof that every diocese has taken sweeping, decisive and impactful action to make children safer. We see this as another opportunity for the Diocese of Greensburg to be transparent."
There was no indication the Justice Department is planning a nationwide investigation.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia, who issued the subpoenas to the Pennsylvania dioceses, wants to know if priests, bishops, seminarians or others committed any federal crimes.
McSwain, appointed by President Donald Trump earlier this year, asked for certain church leaders to testify before a federal grand jury in Philadelphia, though it could be months before that happens because of the time it takes to review the requested documents. He also demanded 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 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.
A representative for McSwain declined to comment, as did a Justice Department spokeswoman.
"This is the first time I have ever heard of a federal investigation into child sexual abuse in a Catholic diocese or church. This is a monumental moment for clergy sexual victims everywhere," said Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston-based plaintiffs' lawyer who played a major role in uncovering the scandal in the Boston Archdiocese over a decade ago.
Two Eastern Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and the Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, also acknowledged they are under investigation.
"I'm thrilled at hearing this information. We have the full weight and attention of the United States federal government investigating the Roman Catholic Church," said Shaun Dougherty, 48, of Johnstown, who told authorities he was molested by a priest as a boy in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Separate from the Pennsylvania investigation, the Diocese of Buffalo said in a statement Thursday night that it was contacted months ago by prosecutors there with a request to review documents.
"A subpoena was provided and after some discussion, an agreement was reached to produce documents," the diocese said, adding that it had not heard anything since June.
While the subpoenas hint at possible charges of sexual exploitation of minors and fraud, legal experts said that if federal prosecutors can show that church leaders systematically covered up for child-molesting priests in the past five years, dioceses could also be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the law originally passed to bring down the Mafia.
The nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury report found that church leaders had engaged in a systematic cover-up by shuffling accused priests around to different parishes and in some cases working to prevent police investigations. Most of the complaints were decades old, and because of the statute of limitations, only two priests were charged as a result of the investigation. Many other priests are dead.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who oversaw the state probe, declined to comment on the federal investigation.
In the wake of the report's release, Shapiro said at least a dozen states opened investigations of their own and more than 1,300 accusers contacted his office on a victims' hotline.
The report also led to the resignation last week of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington. He was accused of helping to protect some child-molesting priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
This week, the report triggered a showdown in the state Legislature, where Shapiro pushed to give child-abuse victims a two-year window to sue the church in cases otherwise too old to pursue. Church leaders opposed the change, warning it would cripple their ability to fund Catholic charities and enrich lawyers. Lawmakers ended the session Wednesday without taking action.
The difficulty of making charges stick against higher-ups in the church was illustrated when the Philadelphia district attorney's office brought a landmark cover-up case in 2011 against Monsignor William Lynn, a longtime aide to two Philadelphia cardinals.
Lynn, the first U.S. church official ever prosecuted for the alleged cover-up of child molestation by priests, was arrested on child-endangerment charges. At trial, he said he had merely followed orders from above. A jury convicted him in 2012. He spent three years in and out of prison as his conviction was twice overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He is awaiting a third trial.