Crisis Control in Philadelphia

A grand jury report, criminal indictments, mass suspensions and the collapse of moral credibility: a conversation with Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior of Philadelphia and victim services consultant Mary Achilles.

PENITENTIAL SERVICE. Cardinal Justin Rigali, kneeling at right, leads the Stations of Cross at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul March 11. The penitential service was called by the cardinal in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
PENITENTIAL SERVICE. Cardinal Justin Rigali, kneeling at right, leads the Stations of Cross at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul March 11. The penitential service was called by the cardinal in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. (photo: CNS photo/Fred Trulio, Catholic Standard & Times)

PHILADELPHIA — In 2005, a grand jury in Philadelphia criticized Church officials for transferring accused priests to other parishes throughout the archdiocese, fueling a scandal that prompted policy changes. In February 2011, a second grand jury report resulted in the criminal indictment of three priests and a teacher for the rape of two boys more than a decade ago. Further, Msgr. William Lynn, the archdiocesan secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, was charged on two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

The 2011 grand jury report also attacked the archdiocese for permitting additional priests with “credible” allegations of sexual abuse to remain in ministry. After initially challenging the grand jury’s findings, Cardinal Justin Rigali suspended 21 priests, a controversial action, as these individuals reportedly had already been cleared of charges.

A critical issue is the grand jury and the archdiocese’s conflicting definitions of sexual abuse and the role of so-called “boundary violations.” Experts in the field say that sexual predators often use “grooming techniques” to establish trust with minors. Thus, kissing and nonsexual touching are now scrutinized.

The cardinal hired Gina Maisto Smith, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who prosecuted sex-abuse cases, to investigate the case of each accused priest. The cardinal appointed Al Toczydlowski, a former deputy district attorney, as the archdiocese’s first delegate of investigation. With the opening of the delegate’s office, the archdiocese’s Victim Assistance Office will no longer receive or investigate abuse allegations.

Bishop Timothy Senior served as the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy from 2004 to 2009 when he was named an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese. He sits on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.

Mary Achilles was appointed the first victim advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. From 2006-2008 she advised Cardinal Rigali on how best to respond to victims. Just prior to the second grand jury report, she was rehired to review and improve the archdiocese’s victim services.

The two spoke by telephone this week with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond.

When Gina Smith was hired to review the cases of concern raised by the grand jury, of which 21 priests were eventually placed on administrative leave by Cardinal Rigali, she said it would take six to nine months to complete her review. Where does that investigation stand now?

Bishop Senior: They are making progress. We are trying to communicate with the priests involved as much as we can. It is our intention that as soon as we get some resolution to those cases, wherever possible, we’ll make some type of an announcement.

It is important to remember that these priests are not convicted. They were removed from ministry so their cases could be reviewed. There was a range of behaviors catalogued in the grand jury report. We have brought in additional competencies to subject all the cases to a more intensive review.

Mary Achilles: I thought it was a courageous thing for Cardinal Rigali to remove 21 priests from ministry — after Gina Maisto Smith identified for the Church what it is about child sexual abuse that we did not know: the things only a trained eye could see. That’s not an easy decision: to remove priests from ministry when you know it will cause pain and controversy.

The language in the public conversation about “credible allegations of sexual abuse” is at issue. Gina Smith has started talking to the district attorney’s office on behalf of the archdiocese, and as a result of that the Church is beginning to understand how language has been a problem in their comprehension of the issue. It has become clear that the Church needs to reconcile the definition of sexual abuse and where boundary violations fit in.

So boundary violations created the discrepancy between the cases in the grand jury report and Cardinal Rigali’s initial insistence that no priests with credible allegations of abuse were still in ministry? That’s why the priests were subsequently suspended?

Achilles: Yes. Gina’s review identified some problems: definitional, evaluative standards, systemic, etc. What she has found to date has been given to the archdiocese’s delegate for investigations, and that is leading us to a new process. The delegate for investigations is attempting to marry the canonical process with what we need to do to comply with local law enforcement.

Beyond addressing systemic issues, like different definitions of sexual abuse or past methods of reporting allegations, what about individual responsibility? If the investigation uncovers neglect or lapses in judgment by individual Church administrators will that also be openly communicated?

Achilles: I don’t know. We haven’t decided on our communications plan for informing parishes about priests that have been removed and may be subsequently cleared. It will be a challenge because we will have to work with the parish to get this done. For example, with a backdrop of two grand jury reports, why should anybody trust us when we say, “He’s not an abuser”?

In June, when the U.S. bishops meet in Seattle for their semiannual meeting, they are expected to discuss the Philadelphia abuse scandal. If you outlined some of the “lessons learned,” what would they be at this point in the process of review and investigation?

Bishop Senior: The Church needs the proper competencies to investigate and address victims’ needs and the sexual abuse issue overall. Bishops are priests; they aren’t sex offender therapists or other kinds of experts. We knew this to some degree before. We were on this learning curve, as other dioceses have been.

You need to be listening to the experience of victims and recognizing that the breakdown of trust will make it difficult for people to come forward. Programs need to be adapted to make them accessible to victims.

In a public statement, the archdiocese explained its rationale for failing to address some of the key points publicly — in a published critique in Commonweal magazine — as “not taking a stance of defensiveness.” If the archdiocese doesn’t explain its past problems, how can it restore its credibility in future actions?

Bishop Senior: It’s critical to have a collaborative relationship with local law enforcement. That is why we are not publicly going to engage in point-by-point debates, [or in] confrontations that would distract from our commitment and goals.

We are focusing on speaking to Catholics and providing them with information. We are providing substantive and detailed bulletin inserts regarding our efforts [dealing with] those arrested and those placed on administrative leave, updates to the standards of ministerial behaviors and boundaries, victim assistance, and using social media, like Twitter.

Will it be helpful to understand what we learned and how we learned it? Sure. But it’s too early in the process to say.

Any change in how the archdiocese is communicating with the lay review board?

Bishop Senior: We hope to further define the work of the review board and how they will fit into the process. We need them and their experience, and we are grateful for their dedication. They have independence.

The John Jay report last week noted “the failure of a significant number of diocesan leaders to comply with their own policies.” Did that happen in Philadelphia?

Bishop Senior: We can certainly learn a tremendous amount from that report. I can’t really speak to how it would relate to the archdiocese.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.