17 Dec 2018


DC Catholic Church Lawyers and Sexual Assault

The following is an opinion by K. Denise Rucker Krepp, a Washington, DC, elected official and former Maritime Administration Chief Counsel

K. Denise Rucker Krepp. Portrait by María Helena Carey

Earlier this year, a grand jury released a 900-page report highlighting 70 years of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. Sadly, this abuse wasn’t limited to one state and the District of Columbia Attorney General, Karl A. Racine, and US Attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, have initiated investigations into possible crimes involving DC priests.

As a former federal agency chief counsel, my recommendation is that Mr. Racine and Ms. Liu examine how church lawyers determined the credibility of past allegations and ask why all allegations weren’t immediately referred to local law enforcement for prosecution. This examination is timely given the Washington Post’s article this week about Urbano Vazquez, a pastor at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. Per the Washington Post, allegations of sexual abuse were shared with church officials in 2015, but Father Vazquez remained in his position and according to prosecutors continued to assault victims for an additional two more years.

Between 2009 and 2012, I served as the Maritime Administration chief counsel and I was responsible for one of the five federal service schools. When a victim notified the school of a sexual assault, school lawyers were immediately called to provide advice to school, agency, and departmental leadership.

As the agency chief counsel, I was responsible for referring cases to the Department of Justice. I was also responsible for making sure that DOJ had all the information they needed for a successful prosecution. DOJ was the entity responsible for determining if there was enough evidence to prosecute the cases and then take them to trial.

Similar processes exist within the Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of Washington has a General Counsel, Kim Viti Fiorentino, and three lawyers who report to her. They advise the Archdiocese and its parishes on legal issues. These legal issues include violent crimes and earlier this fall, the Archdiocese released a list of twenty-eight priests “credibly” accused of sexual abuse of minors.

The list provides information on when the abuse was first reported but it does not provide information on who determined the credibility of the allegations. Not all of the men on the list were arrested and convicted, so why are they on the list of “credibly” accused priests?

Per the Archdiocese website, Father Joseph B. Coyne was ordained in 1945 and allegations were made against him in 1992. Father Coyne retired in 1994, his faculties were removed in 1995, he died in 1995, and in 2018 Father Coyne is on the Archdiocese list of credibly accused priests. Why is he on the list? There is no indication that the Archdiocese contacted law enforcement regarding Father Coyne so who made the determination that the allegations made against Father Coyne are credible? Church lawyers? If the allegations are credible, why wasn’t Father Coyne arrested and convicted?

Edward Hartel is another priest on the Archdiocese list. He was ordained in 1962 and abuse allegations were made against him in 1995. Father Hartel was removed from ministry in 1995, arrested in 1995 for sexually abusing an altar boy, tried for this crime, and then acquitted. Given his acquittal, why did church lawyers support Father Hartel inclusion on the list?

As a locally elected official whose residents worked with some of the credibly accused priests, I’ve repeatedly asked my local parish priest and Apostolic Nuncio for information. So far none has been provided.

The lack of transparency leads me to deduce that in the past, Archdiocese of Washington lawyers were arbiters of credibility and that’s frustrating. Church lawyers shouldn’t have been the ones making the final decision whether or not an allegation was credible. Instead, they should have called law enforcement and requested assistance.

Only law enforcement action results in jail time so my recommendation to AG Racine and US Attorney Liu is to demand the following:

  • a clear accounting from the Archdiocese of Washington lawyers on which church employees were notified of the sexual abuse allegations that have been made against church employees since 1945;
  • who determined the credibility of these claims within the Archdiocese of Washington;
  • who made the determination on whether or not to seek assistance from law enforcement regarding the allegations;
  • who contacted law enforcement for assistance with the sexual allegations and decided the timing of this notification;
  • information on why the Archdiocese of Washington DC did not notify law enforcement of all the sexual assault allegations; and
  • information on which church employees, including but not limited to priests, lawyers, and accountants were involved in negotiating sexual assault settlement agreements with church parishioners.

I’m asking AG Racine and US Liu to demand this information because DC residents are continuing to be harmed by Catholic priests. In an email dated October 25, 2015, the Archdiocese of Washington Secretary of Communications told me that “no archdiocesan priest currently in ministry today has ever had a credible claim of child sex abuse made against him… (and)…there has not been a credible claim of child sex abuse made against an archdiocesan priest in almost 20 years.” Less than a month later, per Washington Post articles, Father Vazquez was arrested for sexual assault. And per these same articles, church leaders have known about these assaults since 2015, yet they continued to employ Father Vazquez.


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