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Virginia investigates Catholic Church: ‘We have heard from victims’

RICHMOND, Va. -- The attorney general of Virginia said Wednesday that he is investigating clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, adding to a rapidly growing list of state investigations.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring said his probe was motivated by the Pennsylvania grand jury report, issued in August, that found more than 300 "predator priests" had abused more than 1,000 children in that state since 1947.

"Like so many Americans, I read the grand jury report on clergy abuse in the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, and I felt sick. It made me sick to see the extent of the damage done, the efforts to cover it up, and the complicity and enabling that went on by powerful people who should have known better and should have done more to protect vulnerable children," said Herring.

"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's announcement comes just one day after Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine announced that he has launched a civil investigation into whether the Archdiocese of Washington violated the law by covering up the sexual abuse of minors.

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.

Herring has also launched a "Virginia Clergy Abuse Hotline" and website to lodge complaints.

Herring's announcement 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.

Bishop Barry C. Knestout with the Diocese of Richmond and Bishop Michael F. Burbidge  with the Diocese of Arlington released the following joint statement in response to Herring's investigation:

Today, Attorney General Mark Herring publicly announced his office’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy in Virginia. The Diocese of Arlington and the Diocese of Richmond assure the faithful and the public that we are cooperating with the Attorney General’s office. Any instance of child sexual abuse is intolerable and gravely immoral. We hope that this process will bring healing for all victims and confirm our commitment to accountability and justice.

Having met with victims, we know that such abuse is unforgettable, and many carry that burden with them throughout their lives. We continue to welcome the opportunity to meet personally with victims, to hear their stories, and to support them in their journey toward healing.

Prior to being contacted by the Attorney General, both dioceses began internal investigative processes using independent investigators tasked with reviewing all diocesan clergy files. We promised to publish a list of all priests and deacons against whom credible and substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor have been made, and we renew that promise. We will continue these efforts and ensure it does not impede the Attorney General’s investigation.

In keeping with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, established in 2002, we report every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to legal authorities. Each accusation is also brought before a Diocesan Review Board, composed mostly of lay people. We thoroughly vet clergy and staff and train them to identify suspicious behavior and report any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. Volunteers who interact with children also go through this process.

We encourage anyone aware of misconduct or abuse on the part of clergy or staff of either diocese to notify legal authorities and utilize the hotline established by the Attorney General: http://www.virginiaclergyhotline.com/ In addition, victims of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Arlington or the Diocese of Richmond are invited to contact the respective diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator who is available to help victims/survivors make a formal complaint of abuse to the diocese, arrange a personal meeting with the bishop or his representative, and to obtain support for the needs of the individual and families.