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D.C. attorney general opens probe into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy

D.C. attorney general opens probe into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy
District of Columbia Atty. Gen. Karl Racine in June 2017 (Michael Reynolds / EPA/Shutterstock)

District of Columbia Atty. Gen. 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 probing 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.

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Washington's archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, resigned this month amid uproar over a Pennsylvania grand jury report that depicted systemic abuse across the state's Catholic Church, including in Pittsburgh, where he had previously 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 District of Columbia, 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 groups, as well as a law on the mandated reporting of sexual abuse.

District of Columbia 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.

"According to the law, nonprofits are required to work for a public purpose," Racine said Tuesday. "If they are in fact covering up child sex abuse, that is clearly not in the public interest."

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 radio station WAMU, Racine said his office's phones were "burning up" with calls urging him to examine those allegations.

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, in addition to a hotline at 202-252-7008.

On Monday, the office of the district's U.S. attorney, Jessie K. 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 the District of Columbia 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. 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 healthcare 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, N.Y., said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer and advocate for abuse survivors.

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Maryland Atty. Gen.l 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 the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, an advocacy-support group, are pressing Atty. Gen. 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 email written to Richmond SNAP leader Dorothy Klammer to say officials 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 email to Klammer.

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