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Cardinal places 21 Philadelphia priests on leave

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At a news conference in Philadelphia Feb. 14, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests displays childhood photographs of adults who say they were sexually abused. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Cardinal Justin Rigali of the Philadelphia Archdiocese placed 21 priests on administrative leave from their clerical assignments yesterday in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, Catholic News Service is reporting this morning.

Parishes where the priests had been assigned were to be informed of the action at Masses on Ash Wednesday, and again at Masses the following weekend.

The priests' placement on leave is not a final determination, according to a press release issued by the archdiocesan communications office. The action follows "an initial examination of files looking at both the substance of allegations and the process by which those allegations were reviewed," the statement said.

Each case will be subject to a further review in a "thorough, independent investigation."

The news comes in the wake of a Philadelphia grand jury's Feb. 10 report that called for the archdiocese to "review all of the old allegations against currently active priests and to remove from ministry all of the priests with credible allegations against them."

The grand jury report had cited 37 priests as continuing in ministry in the Philadelphia Archdiocese despite credible allegations of sex abuse against them.

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NCR's Tom Roberts reported on the historic nature of the grand jury report in our March 4 issue. Following is his report.

For the Philadelphia archdiocese's press release on the priests' suspension, follow this link.

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Diocesan administrator arrested, by Tom Roberts

The recent arrest of the former secretary of clergy in the Philadelphia archdiocese marks the first time a diocesan administrator has been charged for failing to protect children from dangerous priests.

In a Philadelphia grand jury report released Feb. 10, Msgr. William Lynn, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Downingtown, Pa., was charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of children. The report said he allowed “dangerous” priests to be reassigned to ministries where they still had contact with children.

Lynn, who was secretary of clergy under the former archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, was in charge of investigating abuse allegations between the years 1992 and 2004.

The report also charged three other priests, Fr. Edward Avery, Fr. Charles Engelhardt and Fr. James Brennan, as well as a lay teacher, Bernard Shero, with rape and indecent assault.

The recent action follows the release in 2005 of the first Philadelphia grand jury report on clergy sex abuse that was widely considered a landmark document for the depth and thoroughness with which it described both the acts of priest molesters as well as the culture of church leadership that protected abusive priests over decades.

Victims’ advocates and those who have been following the priest sex abuse scandal hail the recent report as the first to hold accountable someone in the “managerial level” of the church.

“We’ve known all along that this was a two-part crisis, an abuse crisis and a managerial crisis,” said BishopAccountability.org codirector Terence McKiernan. The Web site has become a prime repository of documentation of the worldwide sex abuse scandal. “This is really the first time that the management has been touched in a significant way by criminal proceedings.”

Philadelphia differs from other grand jury efforts, he said, because most never get beyond the report stage.

Constitutional lawyer Marci Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York said the reason Philadelphia is different is “because of Lynne Abraham,” the former district attorney who oversaw the previous report. She left office in January 2010 and was succeeded by District Attorney Seth Williams.

Abraham “had this determination to find out what was really going on even if the statute of limitations was a bar” to prosecution, said Hamilton, who has worked on numerous sex abuse cases and is a leading church-state scholar. In other jurisdictions, Hamilton said, if the statute of limitations — a law prohibiting prosecution of a crime after a certain time has elapsed — stood in the way of prosecution, the investigation would be abandoned.

In fact, the original grand jury expressed disappointment that the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, as is the case in many states, made it impossible to prosecute priests about whom significant evidence of abuse of young children — including rape and sodomy — had been gathered.

The crimes outlined in the most recent report were reported within a time frame that allows prosecution.

McKiernan said two crucial elements combined to make the current report possible. The first was “an extremely deep knowledge of the dynamics of abuse and the dynamics of cover-up because of the detail of the first grand jury report” and the fact that the current cases are “within statutes,” meaning they’ve been reported in time so they can be pursued.

McKiernan also believes that a “deference threshold” has been crossed with the recent Philadelphia report. “The church has done a very good job of maintaining its relationships with law enforcement, and the justice system and authorities have been loath to act against the church. But that threshold has been crossed, and I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of this.”

David Clohessy, a founder of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the report “the most clear, current and convincing proof that the church hierarchy is basically still acting recklessly, callously and deceitfully in clergy sex cases. One sentence in the report says it all: The procedures ‘designed to help victims are instead helping the abusers and the archdiocese itself.’ What could be more diabolical?”

The report is significant for two reasons, said McKiernan. It “gives an example to law enforcement elsewhere that this is a potential route to take in circumstances that are pretty much the same in the rest of the country,” and it “has got to have a chastening effect on church hierarchy everywhere,” he said.

“The next time a vicar for clergy or vicar general has a case to deal with and is considering moving a predator to another location, he’s got to think about this. He’s got to wonder if he wants to be handcuffed or put on trial.”

According to the report, Engelhardt began to show a 10-year-old boy, now age 22, pornographic magazines and eventually sodomized the youth before he was “passed around to Engelhardt’s colleagues,” including Avery.

The report accused Shero of raping the same boy. Brennan is described as having been a family friend of a second youngster, now 29, who was raped during a “sleepover” at an apartment the priest was renting.

The investigation resulting in the 128-page grand jury report, which contains graphic accounts of abuse, was overseen by District Attorney Williams, a committed Catholic who was an altar server as a youth and currently belongs to St. Cyprian Church in West Philadelphia.

He also is a member of “the cardinal’s cabinet,” according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The cabinet was described as “an informal board made up of about 40 or 50 prominent Catholics who advise Cardinal Justin Rigali” about events in the city.

In an interview with the paper, Williams said he informed the cardinal of the impending report, saying, “Your Eminence, I hope you know I don’t take pleasure in doing things that in any way have a negative impact on the church. I have to do what I was elected to do, and I believe there is probable cause to hold [the indicted priests] accountable to secular society.”

He told the Inquirer that the case “isn’t about Catholicism. This isn’t about whether priests should marry. The case was about three priests and a teacher raping and sodomizing two boys. This is about Msgr. Lynn knowing that children should have been protected from this abuse and not doing enough to notify people to ensure that it wouldn’t happen.”

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

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