Grand jury report highlights abuse

Jane Donahue

Philadelphia Catholics faced 418 pages of a grisly report detailing five decades of alleged abuse of young parishioners by priests as the grand jury last week ended its investigation of the archdiocese’s handling of abuse complaints.

The investigation, operated by the District Attorney of the City of Philadelphia, has been the longest running grand jury inquiry into clergy sexual abuse. The group has been at work since April 2002.

The 40-month effort investigated the cases of 63 priests in the archdiocese who, the grand jury report said, had inappropriate sexual contact with girls and boys. They said the 63 priests had assaulted multiple victims, one assaulting more than 20 boys.

The report blamed Cardinal John Krol and Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, among others, for suppressing knowledge of acts committed by clergy in the Philadelphia area for years. The report accused church officials of relocating the priests rather than removing them from ministry, thus exposing them to larger numbers of children in the archdiocese.

“As an Augustinian priest I am saddened and dismayed by many of the things that have come to light,” wrote the Rev. Thomas Martin, O.S.A., professor of theology and director of the Augustinian Institute at Villanova. “It seems to suggest a gross abdication of responsibility on the part of the bishops-they ‘protected’ their priests but they failed to protect their people!”

No charges can be brought against the priests because of the statute of limitations Accounts of molestation were made between the 1950s and 2004.

Criminal statutes of limitations cannot be renewed, even in child molestation cases. The grand jury report calls for changing that condition: they said victims must have more time than the law allows to press charges.

Only one priest has been indicted so far.

The Philadelphia Inquirer last week gave accounts of the 63 priests, including each one’s full name, picture (if available), offenses, parishes in which they served, current positions, dates of service, and the church’s response.

The newspaper story said that when one priest was accused of pedophilia, Cardinal Krol told him to take two weeks of vacation, and gave him permission to retire in 1995. The grand jury report said the Rev. Francis P. Rogers had raped and performed sexual acts on at least seven boys, one from the age of 9. Three of the boys’ abuses were already known to the archdiocese before the other four boys were abused, the report said.

The report criticized the archdiocese for transferring priests to different counties, putting alleged molesters into therapy rather than into the criminal justice system, and waiting multiple years before taking action.

“Perhaps some of the truth seemed so horrible that the only way to deal with it was denial,” Father Martin wrote. “As a result a pattern of denial with all of its terrible consequences was set in motion. Rather than offer excuses we should be doing public penance-serious harm has been done to the Catholic community.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia for the past two years, produced his own letter last Wednesday in addition to the 70-page response from the Archdiocese. He said the report was “unjustifiably critical of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Cardinal John Krol, and others.”

At last Wednesday’s press conference Rigali said the church relied on the medical advice available at the time of molestation to assess acts. He described current science as more knowledgeable of “abusive behavior” than it was when the accusations were first made.

“We continue to practice zero tolerance,” Rigali said. “No priest who has sexually abused a minor will serve in any ministry in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.”

Rigali asked for prayers for the victims, their families, and the priests. He noted beneficial changes in the archdiocese: safe environment training for 40,000 adults and 110,000 children, new Standards of Ministerial Behavior, and the Victims Assistance Coordinators Program, to name a few.

The 63 priests named by the grand jury were not the only ones accused. A total of 169 priests have been accused of abuse since 1967. The report said church officials deliberately kept the complaints quiet in order to protect the finances and the reputation of the church.

The archdiocese has produced its own public list citing only 54 “credible” molester priests and refraining from the graphic detail within the grand jury report. The Archdiocese said they fully complied with the investigation, having presented in excess of 45,000 documents. They “supplemented the original documents 30 times with additional material,” Rigali said.

In his letter, Rigali said that “in every single case of abuse reported to archdiocesan officials, action was taken based on the best medical information available at that time.”

Krol, Bevilacqua, and Rigali have been criticized by parishioners and media for minimizing the seriousness of the reports. Attempted rapes and molestations are noted as “touches” in church documents.

One nun who spoke out against a molesting priest was allegedly removed from her job.

Many of the priests are retired or living under supervision, or have been defrocked this year. Krol, archbishop from 1961-88, died in 1996. Bevilacqua followed him, serving until 2003 until Cardinal Justin Rigali assumed his current position.