Originally published September 14, 2002

Five months after District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham launched a grand-jury inquiry into the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese, the investigation has emerged as extensive and aggressive.

Lawyers familiar with the investigation say it is wide-ranging and focuses in part on whether there was any conspiracy or obstruction of justice by the archdiocese or anyone else when the sexual-abuse allegations came to light.

In recent weeks, investigators and lawyers from the District Attorney's Office have interviewed alleged victims of abuse and have pored over court records and other documents as they weigh whether to ask a grand jury to bring criminal charges. Among the materials under review is information submitted by the archdiocese detailing 35 cases in which the church said it found "credible evidence" of sexual abuse dating back 50 years.

In some instances, the church paid financial settlements or agreed to pay for therapy for the victims, but it did not in all cases contact law enforcement officials.

A grand jury is in place to assist in the investigation and compel testimony and the production of documents. Because of grand-jury secrecy rules, it could not be determined if the investigation has found any evidence of wrongdoing.

Officials at the archdiocese, too, declined to say whether any church officials had been called to appear before the grand jury or asked to submit documents.

Catherine Rossi, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, would say only that it was cooperating with the inquiry. "There is grand-jury secrecy, and we're respecting the secrecy of the proceedings," she said yesterday.

In April, Abraham announced that she would use the powers of the grand jury to ensure a thorough investigation of alleged sexual abuse of minors by priests, including those who are "dead, dismissed or retired. "

One alleged victim who was interviewed by officials from the District Attorney's Office said the questioning focused in part on the church's handling of the abuse allegations once she reported the incidents to the archdiocese.

Another victim - Joe Quarles, 52, who now lives in Los Angeles - said he was questioned in detail about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his parish priest beginning when he was a 9-year-old altar boy in Frankford. His lawyer, David Weiss, said it was clear from the questioning that the inquiry was serious.

"From the prosecutor's standpoint, I think they are very outraged and they're trying to decide exactly how to handle this," he said. "I'm confident that they'll try. "

As prosecutors sift through abuse allegations that in some cases are decades old, a key challenge they face is the statute of limitations. Pennsylvania law was recently amended to allow the filing of criminal charges within 12 years of the victim's 18th birthday. Previously, the law allowed prosecutors to bring criminal charges for only five years beyond age 18. But even under the new law, many of the cases now under review are beyond the statute of limitations.

Across the country, prosecutors have been looking for ways to get around such limits. Prosecutors in Boston and Detroit recently brought criminal charges in sexual-abuse cases dating back decades. They cited a provision in the laws of their states that allows prosecutors to stop the clock on the statute of limitations when the alleged abuser moves out of state.

Abraham would not comment on the challenges imposed by Pennsylvania law. The district attorneys in Montgomery and Delaware Counties said the statute of limitations could hinder the prosecution of sexual-abuse cases, in part because childhood victims often wait years to report the crimes.

G. Michael Green, the Delaware County district attorney, said the archdiocese had agreed to forward information about all abuse incidents it knew to have happened in his jurisdiction, regardless of how long ago they occurred. He said that there had been "two or three" such referrals, but that investigations by his office found no evidence of criminal conduct.

Bruce L. Castor, the Montgomery County district attorney, said his office had had no reports from the archdiocese or anyone else of sexual abuse of minors by priests.

"I hope that means that there are no cases in Montgomery County," he said. "But it may mean that some of the cases are too old to do anything about and the victims know that, or it may mean that the victims don't want to talk about it. "

Castor said he had told the archdiocese that he would aggressively pursue any case he learned of, but he said he would not impanel a grand jury unless he had an active investigation and needed its powers.

"I don't know that everybody agrees with my position," he said. "But it seems to me that a person who was victimized does not want a couple of detectives knocking on the door saying, 'Come talk to me. ' "

Contact Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.