Michigan AG Dana Nessel
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel estimated that her team had worked its way through only 5 or 10 percent of the hundreds of thousands of documents it seized from the state’s seven dioceses last October.
Michigan law enforcement officials made their first arrests in a statewide investigation into Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse, the state's attorney general announced on Friday.

Five former Catholic priests have been charged with criminal sexual conduct, Attorney General Dana Nessel said at a news conference. But hundreds, or even thousands, of alleged victims could still remain across the state, she said.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "We anticipate many more charges and arrests."

The charges were the latest effort by law enforcement nationwide to hold Catholic officials accountable for sexual abuse in the church. Since Thursday, four of the former priests were arrested in Arizona, California, Florida and Michigan. The fifth faces possible extradition from India.

Michigan began its extensive investigation into clergy abuse last August, after an explosive grand jury report in Pennsylvania alleged that bishops and other church leaders covered up widespread child sexual abuse over several decades. That investigation has so far resulted in two convictions, and roughly 1,700 tips to a dedicated clergy abuse hotline. A district attorney in Pennsylvania recently charged a third former priest.

Ms. Nessel estimated that her team had worked its way through only 5 or 10 percent of the hundreds of thousands of documents it seized from the state's seven dioceses last October. The attorney general's office has received more than 450 tips since the beginning of this year, resulting in some of the recent arrests.

Ms. Nessel plans to release a comprehensive report later in the investigation, after pursuing additional charges. "This is about taking on large-scale institutions that turn a blind eye to victims and making certain we hold all of them accountable," she said in a statement.

The Archdiocese of Detroit continues to pledge its full cooperation with law enforcement, as it has since the investigation began, said Ned McGrath, the public affairs director for the archdiocese.

Law enforcement officials across the country have often been stymied by limits on their ability to prosecute alleged sexual abuse perpetrators, often due to a statute of limitations, the length of time victims have to pursue legal action.

Michigan reformed its statute of limitations laws last summer, after the case against Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University sports doctor convicted of widespread sexual abuse. The new laws allow victims who were sexually assaulted as minors to file criminal charges until their 28th birthday, or up to 15 years after the incident, whichever is later. Previously, they had until their 21st birthday, or up to 10 years after the incident. The new laws also gave more time for childhood victims to file civil lawsuits.

All of the charges announced Friday were within the statute of limitations, a spokesman for the attorney general said, and were not affected by the recent reform.

Advocates for sexual abuse victims have long pushed to reform statute of limitations laws around the country, but few states have successfully passed changes. New Jersey enacted sweeping changes earlier this month, and will soon allow victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abusers up until they turn 55 or up to seven years after they realized the harm of the abuse.

At least 15 state attorneys general have opened investigations into the Catholic Church since the Pennsylvania report last summer.

In December, the outgoing Illinois attorney general released a preliminary report accusing the Catholic Church in the state of withholding the names of at least 500 priests accused of sexual abuse of minors.

In March, the West Virginia attorney general filed a lawsuit against a retired top bishop and the state's only Roman Catholic diocese, accusing church leaders of violating a consumer protection law.

The Michigan investigation is expected to take almost two more years, Ms. Nessel said in February.