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Virginia’s two Catholic bishops release names of 58 priests they say have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge on Wednesday released the names of 16 priests the Arlington Diocese has deemed "credibly accused" of sex abuse. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Virginia’s two Catholic dioceses on Wednesday released lists of clergy who officials say were deemed “credibly accused” of sexually abusing youth, the latest in a slew of U.S. dioceses to make public such names amid a national crisis over clerical abuse and coverups.

The Diocese of Arlington, which covers the northeastern corner of Virginia, released a list of 16 names. It said the list was the product of two former FBI agents contracted by the diocese and given access to clergy files and information dating to its founding in 1974. It was not immediately clear whether any of the names of the accused were not previously known to Catholics of the diocese.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said in a letter that he ordered the list be released to help “victims and survivors of clergy abuse to find further healing and consolation.”

The Diocese of Richmond, which covers the rest of the state, released 42 names.

Bishop Barry Knestout, who came to Richmond in January 2018, wrote in a letter that the church is called to be “immersed” in reconciliation. “We need to bring to light the damage that has been done by child sexual abuse in the Church in order for healing to take place,” he wrote. “We must continue to demonstrate our commitment to never let this happen again.”

None of the clergy in either diocese are in active ministry, spokesmen for the dioceses said.

In Arlington, eight of the 16 priests on the list are deceased. The most recently removed there were the Rev. Christopher Buckner, who was placed on leave from St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly in 2007, and the Rev. Tran Dinh Nhi, who was placed on administrative leave in 2006 from St. Ambrose Church in Annandale, according to an investigation into Washington-area accused priests conducted by The Washington Post in 2010. Nhi denied wrongdoing, according to a diocesan newspaper story in 2006.

A local survivor-advocate on Wednesday criticized the Virginia lists, noting that they don’t include the names of the parishes where the men served nor when they were removed.

“The church has been in crisis . . . and this is something they think will make them look good? To me this is reactive, not proactive,” said Becky Ianni, who said she was abused beginning at age 8 in 1965 by an Alexandria priest, the Rev. William Reinecke, whose name appears on the Arlington list.

As similar lists have been released around the country, advocates have also pointed out that there is no agreed-upon standard among bishops for what constitutes “credibly accused,” or on who should get to define it. A bishop raised the problem on the floor of the most recent annual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this past fall. The details of the cases aren’t made public and sometimes accused priests don’t make the lists.

The Catholic Church has been under the gun since last summer, when a top Washington-based cardinal — Theodore McCarrick — was suspended amid charges of abuse and extensive coverup. He later resigned as cardinal and a decision is awaited any day from Rome about his fate within the church. A grand jury report out of Pennsylvania about dioceses there led to the early resignation of Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl as well as additional civil investigations, bills calling for expanded statutes of limitations so clergy victims could sue, and more lists like the ones Wednesday out of Virginia.

New Jersey’s five Catholic dioceses on Wednesday released similar lists, with 188 names in all — including McCarrick’s, Crux reported. Late last year, the Archdioceses of Washington and Baltimore released similar lists, as did the regional office of the order of the Jesuits.

The Diocese of Arlington didn’t offer detail on why it released the names now, saying only that Burbidge last fall had committed to doing so. However, Virginia’s attorney general, Mark R. Herring (D), is among the state prosecutors who recently opened an investigation into Catholic dioceses and whether there have been abuse and coverups.

Asked Wednesday if the release of the lists were connected in any way to the probe, a Herring spokeswoman declined to comment, saying only that their investigation continues.

“Today I also renew my commitment to continue to implement our policies and protocols,” Burbidge wrote. “The publishing of this list will bring a range of emotions for all of us. Embarrassment, frustration, anger and hurt are all natural emotions to experience in a time such as this. I share those emotions.”

In its statement Wednesday, the Arlington Diocese said it defines a “credibly accused” priest as someone who has met at least one of the following criteria: the accused admitted guilt; there has been a determination of guilt in a criminal court, civil court or by a church process; or if one of the state’s two diocesan review boards has found the allegation to be credible.

The last incident of minor abuse deemed credible in Arlington, according to Burbidge spokesman Billy Atwell, happened in 2004. The most recent credible complaint the diocese received was in 2015, Atwell said. Twenty individuals brought the allegations that led to the list, he said.

Several Virginia lawmakers this year introduced a measure to make clergy and other “practitioners of any religious organization” mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect. The proposal would exempt information that “is required by the doctrine of the religious organization or denomination to be kept confidential” — a carve-out meant to satisfy some interpretations of constitutional privileges that religion gets to protect clerics’ conversations with parishioners.

Arlington includes 458,000 Catholics and 70 parishes. Richmond includes 222,000 Catholics and 142 parishes. The reason for the apparently lopsided numbers wasn’t immediately clear but the Richmond Diocese covers a far larger, spread-out territory. Richmond was established in the early 1800s while Arlington was formed out of that in the 1970s.

Ianni, now 61, called it a relief to see Reinecke’s name on the list. “The nuns had told us he was sent by God,” she said. “I thought I was the bad person.”

Reinecke died by suicide in 1992 after a former altar boy said he confronted the priest about allegedly abusing him when he was a child.

Ianni didn’t tell anyone about her childhood abuse until she was 48, and eventually went before the Arlington review board, which found her story credible in 2007. Now she leads Virginia’s chapter of the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.