Louisiana's attorney general does not plan to launch a state-wide investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic church, as some counterparts in other states have done, but Jeff Landry said he's willing to help any local law enforcement agencies that looking into allegations of clergy misconduct – the extent to which he said he can legally address the growing national issue.
"As a practicing Catholic, I wholeheartedly support efforts to root out pedophile priests and end the horrific misconduct by Church authorities. Those who sexually abused children and those who covered up their despicable acts should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Landry said in a statement Friday. "If any accusations are brought to my attention of this happening in Louisiana, my office and I will work with state, local and other officials to help find it, root it out, and, working with local district attorneys, bring predators to justice."
Landry, a Republican, hit back on insinuations that he's not going as far as attorneys general in other states have in recent weeks, following a bombshell grand jury report that detailed the widespread abuse of more than 1,000 children over several decades in Pennsylvania.
"To be absolutely clear and accurate: to date, since I have been Attorney General, my office has not received one single complaint against any clergyman of the Catholic Church in the State of Louisiana or any referrals from a local District Attorney which is required under law for my office to initiate a prosecution," Landry said.
In the wake of the explosive Pennsylvania report, the attorneys general of New York, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico have launched their own investigations into abuse in their states, seeking records from local diocese.
The authority of attorneys general varies from state to state.
Landry's opinion that he doesn't have the power to launch such a probe here is backed up by others who have intimate knowledge of the attorney general's role in Louisiana.
"I would be cooperate with local authorities – police, victim services, and others – if there is a problem in our jurisdiction and they sought my help," said Charles Foti, a Democrat from New Orleans who served as Louisiana attorney general from 2004 to 2008. "But first of all, you have to have a complaint."
David Caldwell, a former assistant attorney general who previously oversaw the AG's public corruption and special prosecutions unit, agreed that Landry's ability is largely limited to assisting local law enforcement if requested on the matter. Caldwell's father, Buddy, served two terms as attorney general but lost his re-election bid to Landry in 2015.
Caldwell said that the attorney general's authority in Louisiana was scaled back in the 1970s, providing jurisdiction limited to specific types of investigations, including Medicaid fraud and Internet exploitation, among others. He said even if Landry were to go through with seeking voluntary information from the Catholic Church, he wouldn't be able to indict or prosecute any priests accused of sex abuse.
"The attorney general doesn't have original jurisdiction," Caldwell said. "The AG's office can't run in and indict a bunch of priests – (Landry)'s right about that."
Without that power, the issue becomes a question of resources, Caldwell said.
"If you were going to try to be effective on this, it would make sense to work with the locals," he said. "We always, as a practice, made sure we worked with local and federal authorities."
Victims advocates have criticized leaders in other states of taking on the issue without the proper authority.
“We are all for investigations but they have to have three components. One, they have to be independent. Two, they have to have subpoena power. And third, they have to compel testimony under oath,” Tim Lennon, president of Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP), recently told The Daily Beast. “I appreciate the interest in investigating but without the three components, it’s a whitewash, it’s a sham.”
Landry called on Gov. John Bel Edwards to also dedicate State Police resources to any investigation. Landry has frequently sparred with Edwards, a Democrat, and is mulling a challenge to Edwards in next year's gubernatorial race.
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo accused Landry of grandstanding on the issue.
“Jeff Landry has proclaimed himself ‘top cop’ with broad authority, but is now claiming he doesn’t have enough authority to do his own job," he said. "Politics should never drive the attorney general’s decision to investigate allegations of criminal activity, but his only objective is to score political points."
At least 77 priests have been accused of sexual abuse in Louisiana in recent decades, according to according to Bishop Accountability, an advocacy group that documents clergy abuse cases across the country.
"From what I've seen, all AGs across the country are against any form of child abuse," Foti said "Within their scope of authority, they'll do whatever is necessary to bring that situation to a conclusion and make sure it doesn't happen anymore."