Washington -- Long trusted to quietly resolve its own problems, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is being forced into the unfamiliar realm of the courts by the furor over allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Nationwide, multimillion-dollar lawsuits are forcing church leaders to turn over records and, in the case of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, testify under oath about what they knew and when. There is the possibility of criminal prosecution for church superiors who may have looked the other way.
Until recently, lawsuits by alleged victims usually were settled quietly out of court, and police and prosecutors often were content to give church officials leeway to handle discipline internally, lawyers said.
"In the past there was a minimum level of scrutiny to anything the church did because it was presumably acting in the best interests of people,'' said the Rev. Raymond C. O'Brien, a Catholic University law professor and a parish priest.
"The sexual abuse scandal now has changed everything,'' O'Brien said.
Although the civil lawsuits seek money damages from the church, some lawyers for alleged victims are now passing their findings on to criminal prosecutors. Prosecutors also are increasingly willing to begin their own investigations and have demanded records on potential abusers from several church administrators.
Criminal charges probably are inevitable for church higher-ups who knew of child abuse and failed to report it, or who are shown to have covered for a pedophile, lawyers said.
Numerous abusive priests are in jail or face sex charges that date back decades in some cases.
Charges for their superiors could include violation of state laws requiring reporting of suspected child abuse or broader charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice or even racketeering, lawyers said.
"Prosecutions prior to the mid-80s were virtually unheard of,'' said Stephen Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer who has brought more than 200 lawsuits seeking damages from the church over alleged abuse.
"Law enforcement kept their hands off. Nobody wanted to get involved with churchmen committing crimes,'' Rubino said.
James Backstrom, the Dakota County, Minn., prosecutor and member of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys' Association, countered that times were different, and the stigma of abuse often meant victims suffered in silence.
"I don't know how you can criticize prosecutors for not investigating crimes that were not reported,'' Backstrom said.
In several cases, victims who settled out of court are now going public. Often, however, prosecutors cannot follow up with criminal charges because the cases are too old, Backstrom and others said.
In Milwaukee, former theology student Paul Marcoux went public Thursday with his story that then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland had tried to rape him more than 20 years ago.
Weakland, the highest-ranking U.S. churchman implicated in abuse allegations, acknowledged a secret settlement with Marcoux, but denied molesting him. Weakland resigned Friday.
Milwaukee's top prosecutor, E. Michael McCann, said he knew for years that Weakland had a troubling relationship with a man, but there was no suggestion of any crime.
Lawyers in and out of the church said the church contributed to its legal problems by mishandling past allegations or stonewalling victims, lawyers or investigators who asked questions long afterward.
"The outrage is deepening at the extent of the problem, and criminal prosecutors respond to that outrage,'' said Douglas Kmiec, dean of Catholic University's law school. "Also, the church still doesn't have a well-articulated policy of responding to criminal investigations, and that is aggravating the relationship between the church hierarchy and prosecutors.''
In Norfolk County, Mass., outside Boston, the district attorney forced church officials to hand over information on more than a dozen suspected abusers this spring.
In all but two cases, the statute of limitations had expired, leaving the prosecutor unable to go further, spokesman David Traub said. One case is on hold because the same priest is being prosecuted elsewhere, and the other is in the early stages of investigation, Traub said.
Church officials have cooperated with some requests from victims' lawyers to peek into old files in civil cases, but have fought others in court.
Earlier this month, a Boston judge ordered the church to turn over medical records in a civil case involving the Rev. Paul Shanley, who has separately pleaded innocent to three charges of child rape.
The Archdiocese of New York also recently changed its policy on reporting sexual abuse allegations. The church will now tell prosecutors immediately, instead of first conducting its own investigation. Previously, the church would decide which allegations merited a report to prosecutors.
Although the church is being forced to abandon the tradition of dealing with suspected abuse in-house, the result is inconsistent, lawyers said. Some bishops have installed a zero-tolerance policy, others allow one strike and others have no policy at all.
American bishops may consider a national strategy for handling child abusers at a meeting in June, but what develops will be dwarfed by the reality of a public and a criminal justice system bent on punishment, said Catholic University's O'Brien.
Several states are considering lengthening or ending the statute of limitations for reporting and prosecuting sex abuse crimes. Stiffer penalties for abuse are also possible.