Statewide investigation launched into sex abuse allegations in Catholic Church

Georgia has become the latest state to launch an investigation into past sexual abuse claims within the Catholic Church, Attorney General Chris Carr said Tuesday.

The repercussions could be widespread. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury report identified hundreds of priests accused of molesting at least 1,000 minors over the past seven decades in that state.

“I think people should be prepared for some bad news, revelations that some people don’t want to come out,” said attorney Darren Penn, who represents an unidentified man in a lawsuit alleging abuse at the hands of former Dalton priest Douglas Edwards.

Carr said the state’s Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council will lead the probe. If any prosecutions come out of the investigation, they’ll be handled on a local level, he said.

“I heard from those that I go to church with every Sunday,” he said during an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. “And I saw the level of anger and frustration and distrust. Both on a personal and professional level, this was important to me. I think it’s important that we hold accountable those that have done wrong but also lift the cloud of suspicion from those that may not have.”

It’s a move that has been brewing for a while. Carr said his office and others have been working on it since the summer, though the actual investigation is just starting. The investigation will last as long as necessary, Carr said.

Carr, who is Roman Catholic, said there has been an open dialogue with the church and that Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory encouraged them to do the investigation.

But Penn said, in his experience, the church still clings to secrecy and obfuscation.

“Hopefully, it’ll be different with the state involved,” he said.

Gregory issued a statement through the local archdiocese supporting the investigation. There are roughly 1.2 million Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese.

“In the spirit of continued transparency and concern over the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States, Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah and I offered our full support and cooperation to Attorney General Chris Carr for a third-party file review of both Georgia dioceses,” said Gregory, who will soon be installed as the seventh archbishop of Washington, D.C.

There is a memorandum of understanding of the process. Gregory said a report will be issued after the review is completed.

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”I reiterate my genuine concern for all who have been hurt directly or indirectly by abuse of any kind by anyone and I renew my commitment to healing, transparency and trust,” Gregory said. “This remains even as I prepare to take leave of this wonderful archdiocese. I believe this review is an important step in the long journey forward.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah could not be reached for comment.

Gregory was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 when it implemented procedures for addressing sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

And last November, the Archdiocese of Atlanta released the names of 15 priests, seminarians and those under direct authority of a religious order who were “credibly” accused of sexual abuse of a minor. The list only included priests who were deceased, had already been convicted or had been removed from the priesthood.

“There has to be current members of the clergy they have issues with,” Penn said. “If you’re not naming any current members of the church, you’re not being forthright.”

Carr said investigators will find out one way or another.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic both dioceses will want to open up the books to again hold accountable those who may have done wrong,” Carr said. “It will be very disappointing if there isn’t full openness and transparency. Based on everything they’ve told me, that won’t be the case.”

He said he expects other survivors to come forward. Those doing so are encouraged to contact the AG’s office or their local district attorney.

“At the end of the day, the goal has to be justice being done,” Carr said.

The independent review was hailed by survivors and victim’s advocates as a huge step forward.

“Third-party intervention is the only way to address these problems,” said Paul McLennan of Decatur, a 65-year-old retired bus mechanic who was abused by a priest while he was in high school outside of Chicago. “I think they’re incapable of policing themselves.”

Paul McLennan sits in the room that contains his book collection and other possessions in the Decatur house he shares with his wife. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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McLennan was at a playground with his 5-year-old grandson, who is not Catholic. He said as he looked at him he thought of other youngsters who could be spared what he went through.

“There’s a word — accountability,” said McLennan, who didn’t tell anyone about the abuse until years later. “The main concern I have right now is that we stop this from happening in the present and the future. It’s too late for many of us to see justice done, but it’s reassuring if there will be more protection out there.”

Monica LaBelle, a mother of three who attends St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, said the review is a long time coming.

“I hope it is the case that the archdiocese welcomes this and is cooperating,” she said. “I hope that’s true. I think a lot of Catholics are furious and heartbroken over this crisis in our church.”

If nothing is done, she fears there will be empty spaces in the pews.

“Those who haven’t left already are one more crisis away from leaving. One more Pennsylvania and another wave leaves and won’t come back.”

In the United States, said Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the average age of a survivor coming forward is 52. Only 1 in 4 will come forward at all.

“It’s an incredibly hidden crime,” he said. “There’s shame and guilt and fear of not being believed.”

The investigation, Hiner said, signals survivors that they are being “listened to and believed in a way that, maybe, they were not before. Survivors may feel that the abuse they experienced could have a positive outcome.”

Currently, the investigation will only look at the Catholic Church in Georgia.

Over time, though, it may be expanded.

For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention is also dealing with its own sex abuse scandals, which are expected to be front and center this summer during the denomination's annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Susan B. Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said there is a lot of frustration and anger among Catholics in Georgia and across the United States.

An independent review that is transparent could start the healing process.

“It will be interesting to see where the investigation goes from here,” she said. “The bottom line is more transparency is a good thing. What Catholics want and need right now is accountability. There’s no justice and healing without truth. This is a moment of reckoning for the church both locally and globally, and it’s not an exaggeration to say the church is in a period of crisis.”