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Virginia attorney general opens investigation of possible child sex abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Jan. 28, 2017. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced Wednesday his office is running an “ongoing investigation” into the state’s two Catholic dioceses and whether there has been any sexual abuse and coverup. Herring’s remarks come a day after D.C.'s top prosecutor made a similar announcement.

In a late morning news conference, Herring said the probe was launched in response to a massive Pennsylvania grand jury report released this summer and not with specific knowledge of unreported abuse or a coverup in Virginia. However, he told reporters, after reading the report: “Like so many Americans … I felt sick.”

The Pennsylvania report described hundreds of Catholic priests across the state abusing children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up. It identified more than 1,000 child victims.

Herring also announced a new hotline for clergy abuse reports: 1-833-454-9064.

In a statement earlier Wednesday, Herring’s office said “we shouldn’t assume the behavior and the problems are limited just to Pennsylvania or to one diocese. If there has been abuse or coverup in Virginia like there was in Pennsylvania, I want to know about it, I want to root it out, and I want to help survivors get justice and get on a path to healing.”

D.C. attorney general opens inquiry into sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Washington

Virginia is the 13th U.S. state this year — plus the District — to announce an investigation of the Catholic Church, a historic high. Kentucky’s attorney general has announced his intention to begin one. The Justice Department last week announced it will look into the church in Pennsylvania. While other countries have had nationwide civil investigations into Catholic clergy abuse, 2018 has seen by far the most extensive involvement by national or statewide law enforcement looking into the U.S. Catholic Church.

Many Catholics see the civil investigations as welcome and long overdue after learning of coverups, but others — including some leaders, such as Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl — have in recent weeks described the attention on the church as generally unfair and biased, and they emphasize that most reports of abuse reports occurred decades ago. Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation earlier this month amid criticism of the cardinal’s handling of abuse cases, though he remains in place until the pope names his replacement.

Virginia has two Catholic dioceses — one in Richmond and one in Arlington. In a joint statement, the dioceses said they are cooperating and hope the process “will bring healing for all victims and confirm our commitment to accountability and justice.”

“Having met with victims, we know that such abuse is unforgettable, and many carry that burden with them throughout their lives. We continue to welcome the opportunity to meet personally with victims, to hear their stories, and to support them in their journey toward healing," said the statement by Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Richmond Bishop Barry C. Knestout. Both have been in their jobs less than two years.

The bishops said that before Herring contacted them, both dioceses had recently begun internal investigations of their priest files. Both dioceses will publish lists of credible accusations against priests and deacons when the investigations are done, they said. The reviews are being done by independent investigators, they said. It wasn’t clear if the names of the investigators would be made public and if members of the church would be able to follow up with questions to the investigators.

Herring began the news conference by framing the probe as anything but anti-religious. He said he is a churchgoer and noted his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister “in the Bible belt,” he said.

“Few people in our lives are more trusted and, therefore, more powerful than our faith leaders, especially as we’re growing up. We look to them for strength in difficult times, spiritual growth and maturity, understanding. I know this is true in my own life,” he said. “Sadly we have learned that trust and power can be abused and exploited, even in communities of faith, even against children.”

Leading advocates for clergy abuse survivors in Virginia had recently been pressing Herring to meet and hear their argument for an investigation like the one in Pennsylvania. Thus far they had not been able to secure a meeting, said Becky Ianni, regional director for SNAP.

On Wednesday, Ianni said she was enthused by Herring’s announcement because the priest who abused her was from Virginia. He is now dead, but she said her requests to church leaders in the past to get more information about what church officials knew, how they handled her abuser and how many other people he had abused have so far been largely rebuffed.

Asked whether the probe would look at abuse allegations by non-Catholic clergy, Herring said the Catholic Church was his focus for now but he would welcome reports of abuse from any denomination.

“We want to listen to their story,” he said.

The Virginia State Police hotline number is (833) 454-9064, and the website is