The Virginia Commonwealth's Attorney for Richmond says he will not prosecute a local Catholic charity for violating the state's parental-notification law after four of its employees helped a 16-year-old get an abortion in January.
Despite a pending federal investigation, Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring said Monday that a 2003 law may not have been violated by a social worker at Catholic Charities of Richmond (CCR). State law allows for someone "in loco parentis" to stand in place of the grandparent or adult sibling as a substitute for a missing parent, he said.
"I want to meet with the person who signed the consent form," said Mr. Herring, a Democrat who took office in 2006.
"It's going to be up to her and her counsel, if she has one, to waive her Fifth Amendment rights to sit down with me," he said, referring to the social worker who signed the consent form. "I want to understand her state of mind. Did the staff worker assume he or she was standing in loco parentis?"
The staff worker, who was fired along with three other employees for outfitting the girl with a contraceptive device late last year and then arranging for an abortion on Jan. 18, could not be reached for comment.
The girl, who is from Guatemala and whose parents are missing, was a ward of the federal government's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which had contracted with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Office of Refugee Programs to provide foster care for the girl.
HHS' position is that the staffer who signed the consent form violated Virginia's parental-notification law on minors having abortions, a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine.
HHS spokesman Kenneth J. Wolfe said Monday that David H. Siegel, acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at HHS´ Administration for Children and Families, is the girl's guardian and the only person who could have allowed an abortion.
An April 23 letter from Mr. Siegel to the USCCB called the abortion "a criminal act" or a "violation of Virginia law" three times. The matter is being inspected by the HHS inspector general.
Mr. Herring said no federal agency has contacted him.
"It appears as if the young lady was going to have an abortion by some means," he said. "It appears they had to make a decision of trying to counsel against it or stand by and allow the girl to resort to other means, which probably would not have been safe or sanitary.
"I would hate for any prosecution to be colored by all the politics surrounding the issue of abortion," he added. "Those who are pro-life, so to speak, are clamoring for prosecution. Those who are pro-choice insist the actions do not warrant prosecution. This could be a loud debate overshadowing a more important issue, which may have been the girl's health.
"A 16-year-old hell-bent on aborting a fetus is going to do it either way."
Officials at the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, which oversees CCR, have never mentioned health as a factor in the employees' decision to help the girl abort.
Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo was informed of the pending abortion the day before, had forbidden it from taking place, but was "erroneously" told he could not stop it, said his spokesman, Stephen Neill. The following morning, a volunteer associated with CCR drove the girl to an abortion clinic.
Word of the abortion quickly reached HHS, which demanded an explanation. On Jan. 28, the USCCB provided a timeline to the agency, outlining the chain of events leading to the abortion.
On April 29, Bishop DiLorenzo, along with two other bishops, sent out a missive to about 350 U.S. Catholic bishops, giving details of the incident before it appeared in the media. The Wanderer, a Catholic publication, and The Washington Times broke the story in mid-June.
The American Life League on Monday called on Mr. Herring to investigate why CCR Executive Director Joanne Nattrass did not stop the pending abortion.
"It seems to us that if she knew of some illegal activity that was taking place, one thing she should have done immediately was call the police," said the group, which is based in Fredericksburg, Va. "While it is reported that Bishop DiLorenzo said that he forbade the abortion, we are equally concerned about his inaction as well.
"Who signed the consent forms? Did Joanne Nattrass know of the commission of a crime and not inform the authorities?"
Ms. Nattrass did not return a call asking for comment, and her spokeswoman, Paula Ritter, said she could not discuss personnel issues.
William Etherington, attorney for the diocese and CCR, said the bishop has gotten a lot of "reviling" e-mails on the issue but declined comment.