DC Attorney General Goes ‘Religious Freedom’ Route to Investigate Catholic Church

Karl Racine, the attorney general for the District of Columbia, announced on Tuesday that he has opened an investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the Archdiocese of Washington.

Unlike the Pennsylvania investigation announced last week by the federal U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Racine has limited authority to prosecute felony crimes. However, in an ironic twist, he will use his authority over nonprofit organizations in the district to pursue the investigation. The Catholic Church has long relied on its nonprofit status to argue, among other things, that as a faith-based charitable religious organization it shouldn’t be compelled to provide birth control to its female employees or have to follow the district’s rules regarding discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.

Under D.C. law, the attorney general is granted subpoena power regarding nonprofits and, according to the Washington Post, can “seek penalties against a non-profit—up to and including dissolving it.” Any felony activity that Racine discovers in the course of his investigation could be forwarded to the U.S. attorney.

The Archdiocese of Washington said in a statement that to its knowledge there has been no clerical sexual abuse of minors in the last 20 years. However, Racine announced the establishment of an online portal (ReportClergyAbusetoDCOAG.com) to accept abuse complaints, and on Monday, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu announced the establishment of a hotline and email address to collect reports of abuse by clerics of any faith.

Also on Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced that he had opened an investigation into clerical sexual abuse in that state, citing the recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania as his motivation. “We shouldn’t assume the behavior and the problems are limited just to Pennsylvania or to one diocese. If there has been abuse or cover-up 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,” Herring said, joining attorneys general in 12 states who are currently investigating the Catholic Church.