PHILADELPHIA — Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia announced today that the archdiocese had reached a partial resolution to the investigation of 26 archdiocesan priests who were placed on leave in 2011.
“The work of the special team investigating the 26 priests publicly placed on leave by Cardinal [Justin] Rigali last year is now largely done,” he said. “Eight of the 26 cases are being announced today. Most of the remainder will be announced in a matter of weeks.”
The long-awaited announcement provided welcome news for a small number of priests — three — who have been approved to return to ministry. But the fate of 17 others has yet to be determined, with some cases still under review by local prosecutors more than a year after the individuals were removed from ministry.
Expressing his commitment to the difficult process, combined with a measure of frustration at its slow pace, Archbishop Chaput explained that the task of investigating past abuse allegations “cannot be hurried or abbreviated without violating the whole purpose of the review.“
He also noted that “[s]ix of the 26 cases have not yet been cleared by law enforcement, so our own internal investigation has not begun. In two more of the 26 cases, we’ve just recently received clearance from law enforcement, and our internal investigation is now proceeding.”
Twenty-six Philadelphia priests were placed on administrative leave in the wake of an explosive 2011 grand jury report, which criticized the archdiocese for failing to address issues raised in a 2005 grand jury report and for not removing priests credibly accused of abuse.
The 2011 report led to the criminal indictment of three priests for child rape and an archdiocesan offical for child endangerment. The trial of Msgr. William Lynn, the former archdiocesan official, continues.
Today, Archbishop Chaput's sober commitment to redouble efforts to protect children and reach out to abuse victims underscored the urgent need for the local Church to rebuild its credibility with victims, priests, the faithful and the larger community.
At the May 4 press conference, the archbishop said that the needs and healing of victims would come first. He outlined and defended the exhaustive process of scrutinizing the full record of the accused and the charges leveled against them.
He also spelled out the role of newly appointed staff and a revitalized lay review board in the multilayered investigation of the charges. The grand jury report had attacked the archdiocese for failing to follow its own procedures for evaluating and responding to abuse allegations.
On May 2, Archbishop Chaput met with the priests of the archdiocese to summarize the initial conclusions of the investigation. He has also met personally with the eight accused priests whose cases were resolved to present the outcome of the investigations. At the press conference, he said those meetings had been "very difficult," though the priests who learned they could return to ministry were deeply relieved.
In the past, the archdiocese has been criticized for what some detractors described as a cavalier or insensitive treatment of accused priests, who have not been able to publicly defend themselves after their names surfaced in media reports and parishes learned that they had been removed.
Further, while the media have broadly characterized the accused as sexual predators, some priests have been removed because of boundary violations, which can be hard to define but can involve non-sexual hugging or kissing. Experts say that boundary violations can signal an effort to "groom" potential victims for illict and criminal contact; in the U.S., there is no uniform Church policy for addressing this issue.
At the press conference, Archbishop Chaput and the investigative team said they would not provide the details of specific cases. But Gina Smith, who led an independent investigation on behalf of the Philadelphia Church, confirmed that the "allegations as they emerged were either [dealing with] boundary behaviors or sexual abuse of minors based on a 'more likely than not' standard, and decisions were based on that rubric."
Archbishop Chaput said that those priests who were permanently removed from public ministry, and accepted the Church's judgment, would be monitored for the remainder of their lives. Others could appeal the decision and, depending on the outcome, might ultimately face a Church trial.
In a poignant exchange, the archbishop was asked if the name of an accused priest, now deceased, could be cleared. Gently, he said that the priest's death made it impossible to complete an investigation and that any change in status for his case would depend on the accuser withdrawing his or her charges.
He has also released a letter to Catholics in the archdiocese that explained the status of the accused priests and his ongoing effort to make the archdiocese’s institutional response a model program.
Cascade of Crises
Archbishop Chaput arrived in Philadelphia just eight months ago. Over the intervening period, he has sought to address a cascade of crises, including the fallout from the grand jury report. He has approved massive school closings and other decisive actions designed to stem the tide of red ink in the archdiocese’s budget. Throughout, he has employed his bracingly frank approach for explaining his actions, marking a leaner, more humble era for the local Church.
At today’s press conference, he told the gathering of Church officials, investigators and reporters that the archdiocese has subjected all 26 cases to intense review by “a veteran Philadelphia child-abuse prosecutor, Mrs. Gina Maisto Smith, and a multidisciplinary team of recognized experts in the field of child protection."
“Moreover, the multidisciplinary team’s findings were then studied by the reinvigorated Archdiocesan Review Board,” whose members had broad experience addressing the sexual abuse of minors from a variety of perspectives.
Archbishop Chaput said the scope and depth of the investigation underscored the archdiocese’s commitment “to protect children, assist victims, restore the integrity of the priesthood and provide evidence to the broader community, that it can have confidence in these outcomes.”
Amid the pain, damaged reputations and loss of credibility that have resulted from the grand jury report, he expressed his hope that the Church could earn back public trust and that its struggles could aid other institutions seeking to protect minors from sexual predators. Last year, in the state, Penn State's president and top football coach were forced to step down in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach.
Archbishop Chaput outlined a number of permanent changes in the archdiocese’s formal response to abuse allegations. For example, the archdiocese has removed the investigative function from its victim-assistance program.
“We created a separate Office for Investigations and appointed Mr. Al Toczydlowski, former Philadelphia deputy district attorney, as its head to ensure immediate referral to law enforcement, cooperation with county district attorney’s offices and thorough investigations as part of the canonical process," he said. "This office uses a trained forensic interviewer to take victim statements in an effort to reduce any potential re-victimization.
“The clear division between victim assistance and investigation allows our victim-assistance efforts to focus exclusively on the needs of victims."
Following his prepared remarks, the archbishop also signaled a firm commitment to protect the financial resources of the local Church. When asked about whether he would support attempts to lift the statute of limitations on civil suits arising from allegations of sexual abuse of minors, he said the statute of limitations had a purpose, and he rejected any attempt to lift it unless it was broadly applied.
"Our position is the statute of limitations is very important for the discovery of truth. We support it," he said. If it was lifted, he expressed the hope that "all parts of the community would be treated fairly."
Another reporter asked him if the archdiocese would reveal the details of all 26 cases, and the archbishop responded that he had a "duty" to protect confidential personnel files. "Would your company release personnel files to the public?" he asked.
Today, Archbishop Chaput expressed his belief “that the lessons of the last year have made our Church humbler, wiser and a more vigilant guardian of our people’s safety. That is our commitment today, tomorrow and permanently. “
But many of the 1.5 million Catholics in Philadelphia likely will reserve judgment. There have been other grand jury reports covering similar ground, and they have heard past assurances from Church officials, only to learn of fresh scandals and the abrupt removal of parish priests.