Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory released a list of priests and others accused of “credible” sexual abuse. AJC FILE PHOTO

How far can statewide investigation of Catholic Church sex abuse claims go?

Peter J. Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, has one goal in the review of sex abuse allegations in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Savannah Diocese.

“We will follow the facts where they lead us and go from there,” said Skandalakis, a career prosecutor, who joined PAC last year after more than two decades in public office.

There could be further investigation or, perhaps, prosecutions by local district attorneys.

“Our role is to make sure this is an open and transparent investigation so that the public has faith that any past errors will not be repeated and, from this point going forward, cases like this will be handled differently in accordance with the law,” Skandalakis said in a Wednesday interview.

The state Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council is a judicial branch government agency that supports Georgia prosecutors and staffs.

The third-party review of files, records, documents and reports concerning suspected cases of child sexual abuse will be overseen by PAC Deputy Director Lalaine Briones, who has an investigator assigned to her. Other staff may also become involved. In this review, a child means any person under 18.

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Skandalakis said PAC will review files provided by the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah. All parties have signed a memorandum of understanding, effective May 1.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was named archbishop in 2005. Soon, he will leave to become the archbishop of Washington, D.C., which has been rocked by sex abuse scandals and how they have been handled by officials.

Sex abuse allegations have, in the past, been handled with secrecy, and often offending clergy were simply moved from one church to anther.

While groups that help survivors were pleased to see the review, there were concerns.

Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said there is a risk that investigators will not get all records if they don’t have subpoena power.

“I think the big question is are they going to get access to all records, even those that would be actionable, or will those archives be hidden and not turned over? I like to have faith that they will get the full cooperation and get every single record, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen. It’s like the police asking the drug dealer to show them where the stashes are. The drug dealer will show you the stashes that you are going to find anyway, but for the hidden ones, why turn them over?”

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He also wonders how far back the records and complaints will go. He would like to see them go back to when the Diocese of Atlanta was formed (1956) and with Savannah “go back as far as they possibly can.” The Diocese of Savannah was established in 1850.

The memorandum of understanding does address some of Hiner’s concerns, saying “The Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah will provide PAC with access to all records, files, documents, complaints, and reports pertaining to suspected child abuse. … All records whether deemed to be credible allegations or not will be subject to review.” The review is to “investigate all complaints of suspected child sexual abuse, regardless of when reported or when the alleged abuse occurred.”

Skandalakis said there is no set deadline, but the investigation could take at least a year.

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In Pennsylvania, a grand jury report identified hundreds of priests accused of molesting at least 1,000 minors over the past seven decades in that state.

Skandalakis said he trusts that everything will be turned over to PAC “and I have no reason to not believe that simply because the archbishop (Wilton D. Gregory) is the one who really wants this done. I really believe the archbishop wants an open and transparent process.”

Any new criminal claims that surface during the investigation will be forwarded to the appropriate district attorney.

Last year, the Atlanta Archdiocese released the names of 15 priests, seminarians and those under direct authority of a religious order who were “credibly” accused of sexual abuse of a minor. The list only included priests who were deceased, had already been convicted or had been removed from the priesthood.

Skandalakis said any survivors of abuse can contact his office (pacga.org).

A report will be issued at the end of the review.

Skandalakis said he didn’t want to speculate on how widespread allegations of abuse could be.

Meanwhile, Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah issued a statement saying his office and that of the Atlanta Archdiocese would fully cooperate with the third-party review.

“I reiterate my genuine concern for all who have been hurt directly or indirectly by abuse of any kind by anyone and I renew my commitment to healing, transparency and trust,” he said in the statement. “I believe this review is an important step in the long journey forward.”

The Archdiocese of Atlanta and Diocese of Savannah will have no oversight. Skandalakis said the investigators will also not report to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr.

On Tuesday, Carr, who is Catholic, said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News that “I think it’s important that we hold accountable those that have done wrong but also lift the cloud of suspicion from those that may not have.”

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