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Washington AG investigating Catholic Church’s role in clergy sex abuse

Steven Moore / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

Bob Ferguson is taking the Seattle Archdiocese to court over documents he says it has refused to release.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is taking the Archdiocese of Seattle to court over records he said the church is refusing to give up in an investigation of its handling of child sex abuse allegations.

Ferguson announced Thursday his office is investigating whether the Catholic Church used charitable funds to cover up allegations of sex abuse by clergy in three dioceses in Washington: the Seattle Archdiocese, the Diocese of Spokane and the Diocese of Yakima.

Fergusons’s office sent its first round of subpoenas to the dioceses last summer, but none have yet to provide any information not already publicly available.

On Thursday, his office filed a petition asking the King County Superior Court to enforce the Seattle Archdiocese subpoenas and requested a hearing for May 22.

The state has not yet taken action against the other two dioceses, but Ferguson said his office is prepared to if they refuse to comply.

As a Catholic, Ferguson called the church’s decision to withhold these documents “so disturbing to me on a very deep level.”

“There’s still time for the church to do the right thing, but I can’t say I’m optimistic,” Ferguson said at a press conference Thursday. “I can imagine, for the church right now, the right thing is especially painful, but it’s time for them to lead by example.”

Ferguson is one of 23 other state attorneys general who’ve opened investigations into the Catholic Church. So far, six have produced reports with their findings, according to Ferguson’s office. That includes an Illinois investigation that found four times as many abusers in the state’s dioceses than they had previously disclosed.

Since 2016, the Seattle Archdiocese has released the names of 83 individuals with allegations of sexual abuse against them that the church has deemed credible. Ferguson said Thursday that number could be bigger, given the amount of information the archdiocese still refuses to disclose.

Still, the state’s petition filed Thursdaycalls the list “deeply concerning, as it shows many of the individuals served in positions of power within the Church for decades and were frequently transferred between locations.”

Ferguson added there is reason to believe that the Seattle Archdiocese has known about priests’ abusive behavior and used its charitable funds to protect them.

According to court documents, the archdiocese has refused to provide any “meaningful transparency” regarding whether it was complicit in the abuse, if there are reports of other priests or how it investigated the individuals on the list.

“There needs to be an acknowledgment that protecting abusers is being an accomplice to the crime of clerical sexual abuse,” Esther Lucero-Miner, a survivor of sexual abuse from a Catholic priest, said. “There also needs to be transparency, including an openness to locked-up records, a willingness to meet face-to-face with survivors.”

The decision to take the church to court over these subpoenas is “highly unusual,” Ferguson said. In most other investigations by his office, the person or group being investigated cooperates.

“I wish there was another way to resolve this, but there is not,” Ferguson said. “We’re moving forward with or without their cooperation.”

Because the attorney general only has civil authority, Ferguson cannot press criminal charges against the diocese, but local prosecutors can refer criminal cases to his office if they have the necessary information.

He said Thursday he didn’t want to speculate on any criminal investigation.

In a statement released Thursday, the Archdiocese of Seattle said it has cooperated with the Attorney General’s Office since its first subpoena 10 months ago and has already turned over some of the requested information.

“We have a good understanding of the content of our files and we have no concern about sharing them with the Attorney General lawfully and fairly,” according to the statement.

“However, based on the recommendations and guidance of professionals, we must do so in a way that protects the privacy of victims and ensures they are not re-traumatized,” the statement went on.

Although religious organizations are exempt under Washington’s Charitable Trust Act, Ferguson argued that there is no reasonable ground to apply that exemption for an investigation related to sexual abuse.

The Catholic Accountability Project, an organization that advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse, praised Ferguson’s decision to pursue a court order but pushed him to go a step further. In a statement Thursday, the group called on him to subpoena the state’s religious orders for documents related to widespread abuse among clergy members to obtain documents and evidence from the Vatican archive, which likely has documents and evidence related to abuse among Catholic clergy.

The group has also pushed state lawmakers in recent years to require clergy to report child abuse or neglect when they hear it. A bill to do so failed two years in a row in the Legislature, in part because of disagreement over whether that requirement applies during confession.

Ferguson’s office encourages survivors and their families to call (833)952-6277 if they have any information that may be helpful to the investigation.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.