Philadelphia archbishop to announce abuse findings

May 3, 2012 - 6:35 PM
Priests Meeting

Catholic clergy members depart from Cardinal O'Hara High School Wednesday, May 2, 2012, in Springfield, Pa. Hundreds of Roman Catholic priests have been called to a sudden meeting with their archbishop, as 23 priests suspended over sex-abuse allegations await their fate. Archbishop Charles Chaput has said he hoped to announce the outcome of the latest priest-abuse investigations this spring. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput has many constituents to consider as he decides the fate of about two dozen priests suspended over child sex-abuse allegations.

The priests have been in limbo during an internal investigation that took more than a year. Their suspensions followed a second damning grand jury report on priest sexual-abuse in Philadelphia.

A person close to the process, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that Chaput plans to announce the outcome of at least some of the investigations Friday. The person is not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

Chaput first discussed the matter with hundreds of Philadelphia priests summoned to a last-minute meeting Wednesday.

"I think he's smart, meeting with his priests, talking to them," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University who has written a book on U.S. bishops. "Priests are one of the most important constituencies that a bishop has. He needs them to do almost anything in the diocese."

The church must show concern for victims of the worldwide abuse crisis, while also giving accused priests a fair shake, Reese said.

Chaput is also painfully aware of a related criminal trial under way nearby. Monsignor William J. Lynn, a former top aide at the archdiocese, is charged with child endangerment for his handling of abuse complaints from 1992 to 2004, mostly under the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

The February 2011 grand jury report that led to Lynn's case also alleged that dozens of accused priests were still active in Philadelphia, despite a zero-tolerance policy among U.S. bishops. The accusations ranged from sexual abuse to inappropriate boundary issues.

They could be returned to their parishes if vindicated Friday or removed from active ministry if not. There are 1.5 million Catholics in the five-county archdiocese, and about 800 priests.

Chaput inherited the Philadelphia problem when he arrived from Denver in August.

Supporters credit him with moving swiftly to settle 43 abuse cases for $8.2 million in Denver from 2005 to 2008, and for publicly apologizing to victims. Yet critics complain that he helped block efforts there to allow child sex-abuse victims more time to file civil lawsuits.

Victim advocate John Salveson of suburban Philadelphia wonders why the church is still conducting its own investigations, given the dubious history unfolding in the Philadelphia courtroom. Trial documents show that the archdiocese for decades believed that accused predators could remain in ministry, perhaps after getting treatment or counseling.

Salveson, who says he was the victim of priest-abuse as a child, runs the Pennsylvania-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse.

"The people at Enron did not have the option of saying to the Justice Department, ... 'We'll get back to you in a year, and we'll tell you if we think they did anything wrong,'" said Salveson, who has watched some of Lynn's trial.

A 2005 grand jury report had blasted the church for ignoring or dismissing sexual-abuse complaints made against 63 priests in the archdiocese over many decades. The 2011 report said the archdiocese was continuing to downplay complaints or focus on minor discrepancies to find them not credible.

The archdiocese responded by suspending the priests and hiring a former child sex-crimes prosecutor, Gina Maisto Smith, to re-examine complaints involving active priests.

In May, the criticism came from within when the head of the archdiocese's lay panel on priest sex-abuse blasted then-Cardinal Justin Rigali's response to the pedophilia crisis, saying he and his bishops "failed miserably at being open and transparent,"

"What will it take for bishops to accept that their attitude of superiority and privilege only harms their image and the church's?" review board chairwoman Ana Maria Catanzaro wrote in a Commonweal magazine article titled "The Fog of Scandal."