By Judy L. Thomas

Update: The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph says it will allow Missouri Attorney Josh Hawley to investigate priest sexual abuse locally.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said Thursday that his office is launching a "thorough and robust investigation" of potential clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, with full cooperation from church officials, and he encouraged other dioceses in the state to allow similar probes.

"Today, I have received a letter from the archbishop confirming that he and the archdiocese will open to my office their files and will allow us to conduct a thorough, impartial review of potential clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Louis," Hawley told reporters in an afternoon telephone news conference.

"So we intend to gather extensive evidence from the church, as well as from victims and their families and other persons who are not associated with the archdiocese. At the conclusion of this investigation, my office will issue a formal report setting out our findings. That report will also include any charging recommendations based on the evidence we discover in our investigation."

Hawley said the investigation will be staffed by career prosecutors and led by Christine Krug, head of the attorney general's public safety division and a longtime sex crimes prosecutor in St. Louis. He said he was heartened by the archdiocese's willingness to cooperate with his office and permit "a thorough and fair investigation. "

"I am firmly of the view that full transparency benefits not only the public but also the church and most importantly, it will help us expose and address potential wrongdoing and protect the vulnerable from abuse," he said. "I would invite the state's other dioceses to cooperate similarly with this office's investigation so that our report can be truly comprehensive and statewide."

Hawley said that under Missouri law, only locally elected prosecutors have the power to subpoena or to convene a grand jury.

"While my office does not have jurisdiction at the present time to prosecute any criminal acts of this nature or issue subpoenas to investigate it," he said, "it would be possible to conduct a thorough and robust investigation of potential clergy abuse if the various dioceses were willing to cooperate."

David Clohessy, former head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the attorney general's investigation.

"Law enforcement needs to use subpoena powers to get at all church abuse records, not just the ones one archbishop decides to share behind closed doors," Clohessy said. "And it's important that Catholic officials are questioned under oath, like in a grand jury, instead of relying solely on sanitized church records."

The priest sex abuse issue erupted last week when a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report that said church leaders had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.

The report said the grand jury had investigated child sex abuse in six of the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses, heard testimony from dozens of witnesses and examined half a million pages of internal diocesan documents.

More than 1,000 child victims were identifiable from those documents, the report said, adding that because records were lost and other victims were afraid to come forward, the actual number is likely much higher.

The report contained horrific details of some of the abuse and prompted calls for accountability from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. On Monday, Pope Francis released a 2,000-word letter admitting that the Vatican hadn't done enough to address the issue.

Calls have been going out across the country for other states to conduct similar investigations into clergy sexual abuse, including in Kansas City, where on Monday sex abuse victims called for Kansas and Missouri authorities to launch their own probes.

Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City attorney who has handled hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases, said she has counted more than 230 priests throughout Missouri and the Kansas City area who have been accused of sexual abuse. But only a handful, she said, have been charged and one bishop punished. Given the population of the area, Randles said, it is possible that there could be a bigger problem here than in Pennsylvania.

Two former Kansas City area priests are among those named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report: the Rev. Mark Honhart, who served in numerous parishes in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese from 1980 to 2001; and the Rev. Marvin Justi, who was co-pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Shawnee in 1972. Both priests later ended up in dioceses in Pennsylvania.

Ordained in 1980, Honhart was the subject of three sexual abuse lawsuits stemming from his time in Kansas City. The civil suits were part of a $10 million settlement the diocese agreed to in 2014 involving 32 claims that alleged sexual abuse by priests. Justi, who was ordained in 1958, died of cancer in 2009.

Many also are calling on states to eliminate their statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes so priests involved in older cases can be criminally prosecuted. In the Pennsylvania investigation, the grand jury said it was only able to charge two priests with sex abuse crimes because the other cases were all too old.

"We are not satisfied by the few charges we can bring, which represent only a tiny percentage of all the child abusers we saw," the Pennsylvania grand jury said in its report. "We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated.... And we are going to make our recommendations for how the laws should change so that maybe no one will have to conduct another inquiry like this one."

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said on Tuesday that local authorities have primary responsibility for investigating and prosecuting child sex abuse crimes in the state.

"The Office of Attorney General by law houses the statewide Victims' Rights Coordinator," Schmidt said in a statement. "Any victim of child sexual abuse by a person in authority, including a member of the clergy, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred, is encouraged to contact our statewide Victim Assistance Hotline at (800) 828-9745 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to discuss what help may be available.

"Any victim also may report abuse to any local law enforcement agency," Schmidt said. "Within the limits of the law, state and local law enforcement agencies in Kansas are committed to enforcing the criminal laws against physical and sexual abuse of children -- and our office can assist local authorities upon their request and as resources allow -- regardless of when a crime may have occurred or who may have committed it."

(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)