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Philadelphia scandal calls into question bishops' reporting system

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Cardinal Rigali is pictured during the Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington earlier this year. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali’s move to place 21 priests on administrative leave from their clerical assignments Monday calls into question whether the system the U.S. bishops set in place in 2002 to look into allegations of clergy sex abuse has protected children, say victims' advocates.

The unprecedented step to remove such a large group of priests came in the wake of a Philadelphia grand jury’s Feb. 10 report that charged Msgr. William Lynn, who led investigations of abuse allegations for the archdiocese between the years 1992-2004, with two counts of endangering the welfare of children.

That report also 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.”

Speaking to NCR yesterday, Terry McKiernan, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, said the move highlights the fact that the system of diocesan review boards set in place by the bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” has “serious, serious problems.”

“What Philadelphia is doing is, first, reviewing those problems, and, second, reminding everyone that civil authorities have a role in fixing those problems,” said McKiernan.

David Clohessy, a founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also expressed skepticism that Rigali’s move would address the underlying structural problems which have allowed clergy sex abuse to continue.

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“[The suspensions] do nothing to address the ongoing deceit and callousness by Philadelphia Catholic officials,” said Clohessy. “A grand jury found that the archdiocese misleads victims and endangers kids and has for years. That requires major reform by secular and religious authorities.”

Parishes where the priests had been assigned were first informed of the action at Masses yesterday and are to be told again at Masses this 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.

In the press release, Rigali emphasized that the move to force the priests into leave was temporary.

“I want to be clear,” he said. “These administrative leaves are interim measures. They are not in any way final determinations or judgments.”

The archdiocese has not released a list of the suspended priests, but local media -- like this Philadelphia Inquirer report -- are running lists of priests who have been suspended. Named on the lists are nine pastors, five parochial vicars, three chaplains, one pastor emeritus, two retired priests and one archdiocesan administrator.

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

In addition to the 21, the archdiocese’s statement noted, three priests were placed on administrative leave after the Feb. 10 release of the report. Of five other cases that would have been subject to the same action, one priest was already on leave, two were “incapacitated” and not in ministry, and two others no longer serve in the archdiocese.

Both of the latter two cases concern religious order priests, and their religious superiors plus the bishops of the dioceses in which they reside have been notified, the statement said.

Another eight priests will not be placed on leave, the statement said. “The initial independent examination of these cases,” it said, “found no further investigation is warranted.”

Gina Maisto Smith, the veteran child abuse prosecutor hired by the archdiocese Feb. 16 to lead the intensive re-examination of all the cases cited by the grand jury, recommended the actions to Rigali after completing her initial review.

The cases concerned allegations ranging from child sexual abuse to other incidents of what the archdiocese terms “boundary issues” -- discussions or behavior by a clergyman that might indicate a pattern leading to later abuse.

Asked what Rigali’s move might reveal of how sex abuse allegations are being treated in other dioceses, McKiernan said “we have no reason to think that Philadelphia is unusual in all this.”

Said McKiernan: “No doubt there are priests who remain in ministry in other dioceses and no doubt review boards there are doing pretty much what they did in Philadelphia, which is protect priests in the system instead of protecting the children.”

[Catholic News Service’s Matthew Gambino and NCR staff writer Joshua J. McElwee contributed to this report.]

For more information on the Philadelphia priests suspensions, see yesterday's story: Cardinal places 21 Philadelphia priests on leave

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