By Scott Malone and Bernie Woodall
(Reuters) - Missouri is launching a probe of potential sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, the state attorney general said on Thursday, a week after a report finding widespread clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania.
Attorney General Josh Hawley said his office had no power to force cooperation but the archdiocese had agreed to assist with the criminal probe.
"I am firmly of the view that full transparency benefits not only the public but also the church and, most importantly, it will help us expose and address potential wrongdoing and protect the vulnerable from abuse," he told reporters on a conference call.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, in a letter to Hawley on Thursday said, he had invited investigators to review the archdiocese's files to determine whether it handled allegations of clergy sexual abuse properly.
The archdiocese has removed 27 living priests from the ministry because of sexual abuse allegations, including some who were forced out of the priesthood, Carlson said.
He said investigators would have "unfettered access" to files and that no priests currently serving in the archdiocese had credible abuse allegations levelled against them.
"We did this for one reason, the credibility of the archdiocese," Carlson told reporters.
The probe initially covers only the Archdiocese of St. Louis, one of five Roman Catholic dioceses in the state, Hawley said. He asked the bishops of the four other dioceses to agree to cooperate with the probe.
Dioceses are groupings of parishes and one of the main organizational structures of the Catholic church.
Jack Smith, spokesman for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said the diocese had not yet been formally contacted by Hawley's office, but would cooperate with any requests for a review of files.
Hawley, a Republican, is running for the U.S. Senate this year, a seat now held by Democrat Claire McCaskill.
Pennsylvania officials last week released the results of a two-year grand jury probe that found evidence that at least 1,000 people, mostly children, had been sexually abused by some 300 clergymen in the state during the past 70 years. The most-wide ranging report on clergy sex abuse in the United States said the numbers of actual victims and abusers could be much higher.
Similar reports have emerged in Europe, Australia and Chile, prompting lawsuits and investigations, sending dioceses into bankruptcy and undercutting the moral authority of the leadership of the Catholic Church, which has some 1.2 billion members around the world.
Reuters last week contacted the attorneys general of all states excluding Pennsylvania to see if they were considering similar actions. Only two, in New York and New Mexico, at the time said they had taken some initial steps toward doing so.
(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; editing by Tom Brown)
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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 05:05:31 IST