PHILADELPHIA — U.S. prosecutors pursuing an inquiry into sex abuse by priests and coverups by the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania have turned their attention to bishops outside the state, signaling a wider federal investigation than initially reported.

In a letter sent this month, Philadelphia-based investigators instructed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, its staff, and nearly 200 bishops across the country to preserve personnel records and documents related to sex abuse that could be of interest to the investigation.

A conference spokesperson declined to describe what types of records the prosecutors sought to preserve, but conference General Counsel Anthony R. Picarello Jr. said the organization had complied.

“We have transmitted the U.S. attorney’s letter (to our staff) at his request, and in the spirit of cooperation with law enforcement,” he said in a statement.

In three weeks, the U.S. Conference and its members are set to convene in Baltimore after months of developments that have plunged the church into crisis over its handling of sex abuse claims.

In the three months, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and his successor, Donald Wuerl, were deposed over abuse-related complaints and a Pennsylvania grand jury report that implicated six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses in decades of concealment, and inspired similar investigations in at least a dozen other states.

But until this month, the bishops had largely escaped federal scrutiny.

All eight Pennsylvania dioceses confirmed last week that they were served Oct. 9 with grand jury subpoenas from prosecutors under the purview of William M. McSwain, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

McSwain’s letter to the U.S. Conference – first reported by Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based writer of the Vatican insider blog Whispers in the Loggia — was sent on the same date and was distributed by the conference to dioceses across the country earlier this week.

Archdiocesan spokespeople from across the country — including in Louisville, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans — confirmed Friday that they had received the message but said their offices had not been subpoenaed. The letter did not compel the organization or any particular diocese to give any information to federal authorities, although it ordered recipients not to “destroy, discard, dispose of, delete, or alter” any of the identified records.

Meanwhile, agents already are interviewing potential witnesses in Pennsylvania.

Michael McIlmail, who recently settled a lawsuit against the church, said his son, who has since died, told him he was abused by a priest at a Northeast Philadelphia parish in the 1990s. McIlmail said he met with prosecutors assigned to the investigation.

“The feds have the resources,” he said Friday. “And what I like about the FBI is, if you lie to the FBI, it’s a crime.”

A spokesperson for McSwain’s office has refused to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. But sources familiar with the matter, although not authorized to discuss it, have said agents are looking at potential crimes such as possession of child pornography, aiding and abetting child exploitation, and transporting children across state lines for the purposes of engaging in sex.

The subpoenas served on Pennsylvania’s dioceses sought records pertaining to church finances, clergy assignments, insurance coverage, and confidential personnel files.

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