The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia AG opens sex abuse investigation of the state’s Catholic Church — home to D.C.’s next archbishop, Wilton Gregory

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, left, has been designated by Pope Francis to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, replacing Cardinal Donald Wuerl, right. The two are shown at a news conference at the Archdiocese of Washington Pastoral Center on April 4. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Georgia’s attorney general followed more than a dozen state prosecutors Tuesday by reportedly opening a probe into sex abuse claims against the Catholic Church — this time in a region whose leader heads in a few weeks to take over the scandal-ridden Archdiocese of Washington.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News in Atlanta reported that Attorney General Chris Carr and others have been working on the case since summer and that the investigation itself is just starting, the outlets reported.

Carr told Channel 2 that his office has been in “open dialogue” with the church and that Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory encouraged them to do the investigation. Georgia has a second Catholic diocese, based in Savannah, that is also included in the probe.

Pope Francis in early April named Gregory to replace Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a longtime administrator in Pittsburgh and Washington who resigned in the fall after coming under fire for his handling of abuse cases. Wuerl’s handling of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church was scrutinized in a grand jury report out of Pennsylvania over the summer. That report led multiple state prosecutors to open investigations of their own.

It wasn’t clear what specific evidence or cases, if any, led Carr to open the inquiry into the Atlanta and Savannah dioceses. Some of the states that recently began investigating the church said they assumed the problems and coverups named in Pennsylvania exist everywhere, and that they mostly want to hear from victims to be sure crimes committed are punished.

New York, Baltimore archdioceses list priests ‘credibly accused’ of sex abuse. But what counts as credible?

Carr told the Atlanta media outlets that the investigation will be handled by Georgia’s Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council. If any prosecutions come out of the investigation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, they’ll be handled on a local level, he said.

“I heard from those that I go to church with every Sunday,” Carr, who is Catholic, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2. “And I saw the level of anger and frustration and distrust. Both on a personal and professional level, this was important to me. I think it’s important that we hold accountable those that have done wrong but also lift the cloud of suspicion from those that may not have.”

Efforts to reach the Georgia dioceses late Tuesday night were not immediately successful. However, Gregory emailed a statement to the two Georgia media outlets saying he supports Carr’s probe.

“In the spirit of continued transparency and concern over the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States, Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah and I offered our full support and cooperation to Attorney General Chris Carr for a third-party file review of both Georgia dioceses,” Gregory said.

In November, the archdiocese of Atlanta released a list of 15 priests, deacons and seminarians in Georgia named by Gregory as credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Nearly half of those named had died, while the rest had been removed from ministry or convicted.

“I think people should be prepared for some bad news, revelations that some people don’t want to come out,” attorney Darren Penn, who represents an unidentified man in a lawsuit alleging abuse at the hands of former Dalton priest Douglas Edwards, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Who is Wilton Gregory, Pope Francis’s pick to be Washington’s next archbishop?

Gregory was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 2000s when the abuse crisis exploded. He presided over the groundbreaking zero-tolerance policy enacted at that period but is also held responsible for the bishops making oversight applicable only to priests — not bishops.

Gregory in the early 1990s led the diocese of Belleville, Ill., which removed about 10 percent of its priests because of abuse accusations.

But experts say 2019 is not the 1990s nor the early 2000s and that Catholics are demanding real transparency and accountability.

Among the states that have opened investigations since the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released are New York, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Florida and Delaware.

Gregory will be installed as the next archbishop of Washington on May 21.