WASHINGTON – Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine announced Tuesday that his office will open an investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the local archdiocese.
Racine announced the move Tuesday during a regular breakfast meeting among Washington officials. The Washington Archdiocese has been shaken recently by a pair of high-profile sexual abuse scandals — but neither of them involved abuse that took place in Washington.
Earlier this year, former archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals and retired from public life after a string of sexual abuse allegations dating back to his time as a priest in New York and a bishop in New Jersey. And current archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl resigned earlier this month amid allegations that he covered up multiple abuse scandals while serving as a bishop in Pittsburgh.
Racine's office has limited powers; all felony cases in the District of Columbia are handled by the U.S. Attorney's office. However he is focusing on his authority to enforce a Washington law governing nonprofit organizations. Racine also cites a local law that requires any adult to report suspected child abuse or neglect to authorities.
The mandatory reporting law carries only a three-year statute of limitations, however there's no such limit on the law governing nonprofit organizations, giving Racine the authority to explore decades of archdiocese history.
"According to the law, nonprofits are required to work for a public purpose," Racine told a group of elected officials Tuesday morning. "If they are in fact covering up child sex abuse, that is clearly not in the public interest."
In a statement Tuesday, the archdiocese said church officials had met with Racine in September to brief him on the church's anti-abuse policies and procedures.
"We had a very productive exchange with the Attorney General and his staff," said Kim Viti Fiorentino, chancellor and general counsel for the archdiocese. "We explained that the problem of sexual abuse of minors in the archdiocese was an historical one - that to our knowledge there had not been an incident of abuse of a minor by an archdiocesan clergy member for almost 20 years."
Racine, in an interview with The Associated Press, said his office, "appreciated their outreach."
He said he decided to initiate the investigation after the August report by a Pennsylvania grand jury that detailed more than 1,000 abuse cases involving more than 300 priests dating back 70 years and a systematic cover-up by multiple church leaders. The report also detailed Cardinal Wuerl's alleged role in covering up cases and shuffling pedophile priests through multiple parishes.
The report, Racine said, "raised concern about concealment of evidence. We want to make sure that none of that happened here in Washington."
Earlier this month in a bid for transparency, the local archdiocese released a list of 31 clergy members it said had been "credibly accused" of sexually abusing minors. Most of the cases date back multiple decades and only three of the alleged abuses took place after 2000. Of the 31 men listed, 16 are dead.
The Washington Archdiocese holds a powerful place in the American church hierarchy. In addition to being the home of the federal government, Washington contains important Catholic institutions like the Vatican's embassy and Georgetown University.