Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine announced Tuesday he has launched a civil investigation into whether the Archdiocese of Washington violated the law by covering up the sexual abuse of minors.
“While we generally don’t talk publicly about our confidential enforcement activity, I can report that our office has launched a civil investigation into whether the Archdiocese – which is a nonprofit institution – violated the District’s Nonprofit Act by potentially covering up allegations of sexual abuse of minors,” Racine said in a statement provided to CNN by a representative.
“According to the law, nonprofits are required to work for a public purpose; if they are in fact covering up child sex abuse, that is clearly not in the public interest.”
Racine also announced a new portal for victims of clergy abuse in the district to report their abuse to his office.
While the attorney general in Washington does not have jurisdiction over most criminal matters except for some misdemeanors, Racine can investigate potential civil violations. Racine could investigate, for example, whether the Archdiocese of Washington used donations or other funds to cover up the abuse of children, said Rob Marus, a spokesman for Racine.
Racine also has jurisdiction to enforce local laws requiring entities to report the abuse of children, the spokesman added. In Washington, clergy are not considered “mandated” reporters of abuse, but Catholic school teachers and other school employees are, Marus said.
Separately, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia, which has jurisdiction over sex crimes in the district, launched its own hotline for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.
“All reports will be reviewed and a team of experienced criminal investigators, prosecutors, and victim advocates from the Superior Court Division of the US Attorney’s Office will determine whether any criminal charges can be brought or victim services provided,” the US Attorney’s office said Monday.
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Washington said its attorneys met with Racine and gave him copies of the annual reports on abuse allegations that it has published every year since 2003.
“We had a very productive exchange with the attorney general and his staff,” said Kim Viti Fiorentino, chancellor and general counsel for the Archdiocese of Washington.
“We explained that the problem of sexual abuse of minors in the archdiocese was a 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.”
Fiorentino added that “there is not now, and has not been for decades, any problem of abuse of minors by clergy of the Archdiocese of Washington. Zero tolerance has been mandated in this archdiocese and zero abuse is the result.”
But the archdiocese had refused to release a list of clergy credibly accused of abusing minors until last week, just days after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who has been accused of mishandling cases of clergy misconduct while he was a bishop in Pittsburgh.
The Pope, who acknowledged Wuerl’s “mistakes” but praised his “nobility” in stepping down, will let the cardinal continue to run the archdiocese until a successor is found.
Wuerl’s predecessor in Washington, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, was demoted by the Pope this summer and ordered to remain sequestered while the Vatican hears his appeal on charges that he sexually abused an altar boy.
McCarrick has maintained his innocence, and now lives in a monastery in Kansas. He is also facing accusations that he sexually abused seminarians in New Jersey before he became archbishop of Washington.
Racine’s investigation comes just days after reports that federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania have issued subpoenas to the state’s eight Catholic dioceses to probe for potential crimes. While the scope of that investigation is still unclear, groups such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which first asked the Justice Department to launch a probe in 2003, called it unprecedented.
Separately, the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, also received a subpoena regarding clergy sexual abuse in late May, according to a source familiar with the subpoena.
In September, the New York attorney general issued civil subpoenas for all eight Catholic dioceses in the state as part of a civil investigation into how the church reviewed and potentially covered up allegations of the sexual abuse of minors, according to a source close to the investigation.
New Jersey’s attorney general has also said his office would form a task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and any attempted cover-ups.
Attorneys general in Missouri and New Mexico said they are also investigating church files for evidence of abuse and cover-ups.
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote to a spokesman for Karl Racine. It should have been attributed to Racine.