D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said Tuesday that his office has begun an investigation of 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 the District’s elected officials, will bring scrutiny to Catholic leaders who have come under intense criticism in recent months.
Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation this month as Washington’s archbishop amid an uproar over a Pennsylvania grand jury report that depicted systemic abuse in the Catholic Church across the state, including in Pittsburgh, where Wuerl had been a bishop.
Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl’s predecessor at the Washington Archdiocese, was removed from ministry in June amid 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, where felony cases are handled by the U.S. attorney’s office. However, he is opening a civil investigation under his authority to enforce D.C. law governing nonprofit organizations.
D.C. statutes allow the attorney general to subpoena documents and seek penalties against a nonprofit — up to and including dissolving it — if it “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.”
Racine said that any felony crimes his office discovers in the course of its probe would be forwarded to the U.S. attorney. Racine’s staff could also prosecute any violations of the District’s mandated reporting requirements — which would be misdemeanors — separately from the civil investigation.
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, Wuerl asked archdiocesan attorneys last month 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.
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. By contrast, violations of the city’s law on mandated reporting of child sexual abuse carry a three-year statute of limitations.
“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 of the church’s handling of abuse allegations against D.C. 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.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she supports Racine’s efforts, saying, “I would encourage him to find out anything that we can about wrongdoing.”
His office has set up an online portal for victims to report abuse by D.C. clergy. The site is ReportClergyAbusetoDCOAG.com.
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 an inquiry of the Washington Archdiocese.
Before this summer, the archdiocese — which includes Catholics in the District 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 predecessor, Cardinal James Hickey, was also considered a leader on the issue, and the archdiocese was one of the first — in the 1980s — to have a policy for church employees accused of abusing youth.
The Washington Archdiocese is considered one of the country’s most important U.S. seats for the church and is home to key 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 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, as well as those in need of free health care or legal aid.
Attorneys general in 12 states are now running investigations of the Catholic Church, a historic high. The District joined that list Tuesday, and Kentucky’s attorney general has announced his intention to launch a probe. In the early 2000s, New Hampshire and Massachusetts investigated the church, as did Rockville Center, N.Y., said Marci Hamilton, a church-state lawyer and advocate for abuse survivors.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh announced late last month that he is investigating the abuse of children in the Baltimore Archdiocese. Archbishop William E. Lori said the archdiocese is cooperating with a state investigation.
“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 of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an advocacy-support group, are pressing Attorney General Mark Herring (D) to meet with the group and hear its argument for an investigation like the one in Pennsylvania, SNAP leader Becky Ianni said Monday night.
Herring’s office did not return an immediate request for comment to The Washington Post but sent an email to Richmond SNAP leader Dorothy Klammer saying the office could not comment as to whether an investigation is ongoing.
“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 email to Klammer.