updated 7/2/2008 2:13:01 PM ET 2008-07-02T18:13:01

Catholic leaders in Richmond apologized after a mix up enabled a 16-year-old illegal immigrant in a Catholic charity's care to get an abortion with help from charity staffers.

Richmond Diocese Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo issued a statement in Monday's edition of the Catholic Virginian apologizing for lapses that led to the procedure staunchly opposed by the church.

The incident involved a Guatemalan teenager being cared for by Commonwealth Catholic Charities, through a program that arranges foster care for illegal immigrant children in the country without adult guardians.

Officials fired four of the Richmond-based charity's workers determined to have helped the girl travel to and from the January procedure, and who signed a consent form for the abortion.

"I express my profound apology for the loss of life of one of the most vulnerable among us," DiLorenzo wrote. "And I apologize for the profound embarrassment this has caused the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and Catholics throughout the United States."

The bishop had advance knowledge of the January procedure, but he said he was told by the charity's executive director, Joanne Nattrass, that there was nothing they could do to intervene.

'I forbid this to happen'
Nattrass issued a statement saying she learned Jan. 17 that the girl was scheduled to have an abortion the next morning.

The information was relayed to the bishop, who Nattrass said replied that "I forbid this to happen." But Nattrass said she and other authorities were led to believe they could not stop it.

It was unclear late Tuesday who told Nattrass the procedure was to take place or that it could not be stopped. Nattrass and a spokeswoman for the charity didn't immediately return calls seeking further comment from The Associated Press.

Case examined
Meanwhile, authorities are investigating whether the charity or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops violated state and federal laws.

The conference receives $7.6 million a year in federal funds to place unaccompanied illegal immigrant children in foster care until they're reunited with relatives, sponsored, or returned to their homeland.

Commonwealth Catholic Charities serves children in the Richmond area as a subcontractor of the bishop's conference. The conference "appears to have been aware of Commonwealth Catholic Charities' actions," Siegel wrote in his April 23 letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' deputy inspector general, Timothy Menke.

Federal law bans the use of federal money to pay for abortions with exceptions for rape, incest or threats to the life of the mother. Virginia law requires parental consent for an abortion for a girl under 18.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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