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How Georgia’s attorney general, local clergy are reacting to Catholic Church abuse
Local church leaders join in enforcing zero tolerance stance on violators
Pope Francis gestures as he answers to a journalist’s question during a press conference aboard of the flight to Rome at the end of his two-day visit to Ireland, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

In light of reports of abuse in the Catholic Church, Georgia’s attorney general issued a statement Friday encouraging churches to be transparent and hold abusers accountable.

Christopher Carr said in the statement that he is concerned about reports of abuse and how the church has been responding, and as a Roman Catholic himself, the issue is both professional and personal for him.

“It does not matter whether sexual abuse occurs in the context of human trafficking, by a friend or family member, a teacher or a coach, a public employee, or, as here, by a priest or church official. It must not — and will not— be tolerated,” Carr said.

According to a grand jury report released in August, hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s. The report estimates that more than 300 clergy were abusive. In most of the cases, the statute of limitations has run out, so criminal charges cannot be filed.

In a statement issued Aug. 16, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, addressed the abuse in Pennsylvania, saying many Catholics were rightfully angered by the case.

“We grieve with the victim-survivors and their loved ones, especially those who were disbelieved, neglected, or ignored when they came forward to tell church officials of their torment. ... Absolutely nothing can dispense the culpability of those who have harmed and violated our people in the name of religion, nor those who concealed knowledge of those horrific acts,” Gregory said.

The Archdiocese of Atlanta, which covers Hall County, has 104 parishes and missions and includes 1.2 million Catholics. Hall has two Catholic parishes, St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville and Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch.

The Rev. Tim Hepburn of St. Michael said he agreed with Carr’s statement. Hepburn said Catholics he has spoken with feel “numbed” by the reports, but he has found that having difficult conversations about the issue can be helpful.

“There’s a lot of range of emotions about it. ... I have been able to ease some people’s minds by assuring them about the good work the church has done since 2002 in basically implementing a no-tolerance policy in abuse of anyone,” he said.

In 2002, The Boston Globe published a series of reports detailing abuse by priests and the cover-up by Cardinal Bernard Law, who shuffled priests from parish to parish without telling parents or the police. Law later resigned.

Paula Gwynn Grant, spokeswoman for the Atlanta archdiocese, said Friday the archdiocese agrees with Carr’s concerns.

“Archbishop Gregory supports and shares the attorney general’s commitment,” she said. “We continue to care for those who have been harmed.”

The Pennsylvania reports came shortly after the resignation of Theodore McCarrick, who was accused of sexually abusing boys and having sexual misconduct with adult seminarians. McCarrick had been Washington’s archbishop and retired in 2006. Pope Francis ordered that McCarrick be suspended from public ministry in July.

On Aug. 9, Gregory issued a statement on behalf of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, condemning McCarrick’s actions. While Gregory said he had never personally worked with McCarrick, he had encountered him as a fellow member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and said his respect for McCarrick had been “clearly misplaced.”

“I never knew or suspected the hidden side of a man whose admired public persona concealed that of a violator of foundational Christian morality and of young people who trusted him,” Gregory said. “Like any individual who discovers far too late that a friend has a history of moral misconduct, I now stand dumbfounded that I was so unaware and naive.”

While neither the Georgia Constitution nor the Georgia legislature gives the Attorney General’s Office the authority to investigate or prosecute crimes against children, Carr said he would use his department’s resources to hold abusers and those complicit in abuse accountable, as well as support victims.

Carr asked the church to address the issue of abuse and work to be more transparent.

“If there are priests or others associated with the Catholic Church in Georgia who are known to have engaged in acts of abuse against children, I call on the church to bring to light those cases and to be an active participant to ensure justice is done,” Carr said. “If a priest was responsible for the abuse, then I call on the church to take immediate action to remove him from the ranks of the priesthood.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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