Washington's attorney general opens probe into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy
WASHINGTON — District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said Tuesday that his office has launched an investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the Archdiocese of Washington, the latest in a string of state-level law enforcement officials now looking into the Catholic Church's handling of abuse complaints.
The investigation, announced by Racine at a regularly scheduled breakfast among Washington's elected officials, will bring scrutiny to Catholic leaders who have come under intense criticism in recent months.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl resigned this month as Washington's archbishop amid an uproar over a Pennsylvania grand jury report that depicted systemic abuse across the state's Catholic Church, including in Pittsburgh, where he had been a bishop.
Wuerl's Washington predecessor, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was removed from ministry in June following allegations that he had sexually abused a teenager decades ago while serving as a priest in New York.
Racine has limited power to prosecute crimes in the D.C., where felony cases are handled by the U.S. attorney's office. However, he is opening the investigation under his authority to enforce a Washington law governing nonprofit organizations, as well as a law on the mandated reporting of sexual abuse.
D.C. statutes allow the attorney general to subpoena documents and seek penalties against a nonprofit - up to and including dissolving it - if the group "has exceeded or abused and is continuing to exceed or abuse the authority conferred upon it by law" or if it "has continued to act contrary to its nonprofit purposes." Violation of the District's mandated reporting requirements is a misdemeanor.
The archdiocese said in a statement Tuesday that it "remains committed to a collaborative and transparent review process because there is not now, and has not been for decades, any problem of abuse of minors by clergy of the Archdiocese of Washington." The archdiocese says there has been no clergy abuse of a minor for more than 20 years - to the knowledge of church leaders.
According to the statement, last month Wuerl asked archdiocesan attorneys to brief Racine's office on the church's efforts, including its public annual report about abuse. The archdiocese spends an average of $350,000 each year on child-protection efforts, it says.
"We had a very productive exchange with the Attorney General and his staff," Kim Viti Fiorentino, the archdiocese's attorney and chancellor, said in the statement.
Racine said in an interview that he had felt obligated to scrutinize the church in Washington after seeing the "withering set of facts" in the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
The investigation will also focus on alleged violations of Washington's laws on mandated reporting of child sexual abuse. However, that law has a three-year statute of limitations.
By contrast, there is no statute of limitations for D.C. law governing nonprofit organizations, giving Racine wide scope to investigate the church's handling of decades of abuse claims.
"Any not-for-profit or charity that is using its charter to violate the law or conceal violations of the law could in fact be violating its not-for-profit charter," Racine said.
Racine's approach enables him to respond to what he has described as intense public pressure for an investigation into the church's handling of abuse allegations against Washington clergy. During an August appearance on the "Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU-88.5, Racine said his office's phones were "burning up" with calls urging him to examine those allegations.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, said she supports Racine's efforts. "I would encourage him to find out anything that we can about wrongdoing," she said.
His office has set up a new online portal for victims to report abuse by Washington clergy, which can be found at www.ReportClergyAbuseto DCOAG.com.
On Monday, the office of the District's U.S. attorney, Jessie Liu, said it has created a hotline and an email address for survivors of child sexual abuse by clergy - of any faith.
It's striking for a city official to open a probe of the D.C. archdiocese.
Before this summer, the archdiocese - which includes Catholics in D.C. and its Maryland suburbs - had seemed to have escaped the worst of the abuse crisis. McCarrick was one of the country's most outspoken church leaders about fighting abuse when scandals erupted in the early 2000s in Boston and was an author of a zero-tolerance approach toward priests who abused.
McCarrick's predecessary, Cardinal James Hickey, was also considered a leader and the archdiocese was one of the first - in the 1980s - to have a policy for church employees accused of abusing youth.
Washington's archdiocese is considered one of the country's most important U.S. seats for the church. It's the base of the U.S. government, as well as key Catholic institutions such as the bishops' conference and the Vatican Embassy.
It includes 655,000 Catholics and 93 Catholic schools - some of the healthiest numbers in the Northeastern quadrant of the country, where the Catholic church has been shrinking for decades.
The archdiocese is the largest nongovernmental provider of social services in the region, according to the archdiocese. It has more than 2,500 programs including those for the homeless, migrating and unemployed and those in need of free health care or legal aid.
According to the website bishopaccountability.org, which tracks abuse accusations and cases, there are 13 states now running statewide probes of the Catholic Church, a historic high. In the early 2000s New Hampshire and Massachusetts investigated the church, as did Rockville Center, New York, said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer and advocate for abuse survivors.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced late last month that he is investigating the abuse of children in the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. Bishop William Lori said his archdiocese is cooperating with a state investigation that is underway.
"Based on my conversations with people throughout the Archdiocese . . . it is clear that we are a church in crisis and that crisis is one of trust. It is my hope and prayer that this independent review and other acts of transparency by the Archdiocese will bring about greater trust in the Church among those who are understandably skeptical about the Church's handling of allegations of abuse," Lori wrote in a letter to his priests.
In Virginia, leaders of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priest, or SNAP, an advocacy-support group, are pressing Attorney General Mark Herring to meet with their group and hear their argument for a Pennsylvania-like probe, SNAP leader Becky Ianni said Monday night.
Herring's office did not return an immediate request for comment to the Post, but sent an e-mail wrote to Richmond SNAP leader Dorothy Klammer to say they could not comment as to whether an investigation is ongoing or not.
"We encourage any survivors of sexual abuse to reach out to our office or their local law enforcement or Commonwealth's Attorney's office, so they can connect with resources and support," said the Constituent Services e-mail to Klammer.
This article was written by Peter Jamison and Michelle Boorstein, reporters for The Washington Post.