Grand Jury Probes Accused Priests

A grand jury is investigating allegations of sexual abuse against 24 Catholic priests as part of a probe that began with the arrest of a defrocked clergyman in March, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

The state panel has been unable to pursue complaints against 10 other priests, some of whom have died, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said.

Joyce declined to release any information about the 24 priests, including if they are serving in an active ministry. She said most of the cases happened so long ago the grand jury is facing a cold evidentiary trail and legal issues with the statue of limitations.

"They are just allegations," Joyce said. "There are no charges. Whether or not they pan out into charges or indictments remains to be seen."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch first reported the news on its Web site Wednesday.

In a statement, the Archdiocese of St. Louis said that, to its knowledge, none of the allegations had been substantiated.

"While we do not comment on individual cases, we know of no priest of the archdiocese currently serving in a parish or in a ministry with young people of whom there has been a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor," the statement said.

Joyce's comments came as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared to meet in Dallas to work on a national policy to rid the priesthood of abusers.

All the complaints under investigation followed a request by Joyce in March urging victims of sexual abuse to come forward. "When that happened, it was kind of like turning on a faucet," she said. "We got tons of calls."

The plea came as her office charged a defrocked priest who was dismissed from the clergy in 1977 amid sexual abuse allegations. The charges, two counts of sexual misconduct, stem from when he worked as an elementary school counselor.

In other developments Wednesday:

--Three brothers allegedly abused by a Mississippi priest filed a $39 million lawsuit naming the clergyman and the Diocese of Jackson, including Bishop William Houck and former Vicar General Bernard Law.

The brothers claim the abuse continued after the allegations were reported to Law, now cardinal of the Archdiocese of Boston, where the national scandal engulfing the church emerged earlier this year.

Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the Boston Archdiocese, said she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. A call to the Jackson diocese seeking comment was not returned.

The abuse allegedly took place in the early 1970s when the brothers were about ages 5 to 14.

--In Detroit, prosecutors said statutes of limitations and other factors will prevent authorities from charging 11 priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit accused of abuse.

Three of the priests have died, said Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca. In another case, the alleged victim declined to cooperate.

The cases were detailed in records the Archdiocese of Detroit turned over to prosecutors last month.