Philadelphia and the Dallas Charter

Recent clerical suspensions in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have raised questions about the fair treatment of priests who are accused of sexual abuse.

PHILADELPHIA — The clergy abuse scandal that recently erupted in Philadelphia is fueling scrutiny of the U.S. bishops’ extensive, multimillion-dollar effort to secure compliance with the Dallas Charter and related guidelines for abuse prevention and reporting.

The unprecedented mass suspension also raised concerns about the rights of priests previously cleared of abuse allegations and others tainted by boundary violations (inappropriate conduct short of abuse).

Cardinal Justin Rigali suspended 21 priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia March 8, following a grand jury report that indicted an archdiocesan official with endangering the welfare of minors and accused three priests and a teacher of raping two boys more than a decade ago.

Like most U.S. dioceses, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had passed muster in an annual audit that documented its compliance with the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Could a diocese provide all the necessary safe-environment programs and screenings and still fail to protect the welfare of minors?

The archdiocese’s own investigation of the grand jury report could take up to nine months, but the apparent discrepancy between official Church data and the allegations outlined in the report has already raised questions about the limits of data collection. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has confirmed plans for a review of the Dallas Charter at the bishops’ upcoming June meeting.

The 2010 USCCB audit of nationwide compliance with the Dallas Charter reported that dioceses and religious orders spent a total of $123,703,433 on compliance with the charter and financial settlements — with 57% of that sum devoted to settling claims.

Cardinal Rigali has already announced one significant change in archdiocesan procedures — a move that seemed to lend weight to the grand jury’s criticism of the Church’s weak methods of investigation. 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.

“The delegate will oversee and facilitate all aspects of archdiocesan investigations from receipt of a complaint through examination by the Archdiocesan Review Board to the presentation of a recommendation to the archbishop,” stated a bulletin insert circulated through the archdiocese and posted on the archdiocese’s website.

Gina Maisto Smith, the former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who prosecuted sex-abuse cases, was appointed by Cardinal Rigali to investigate the case of each accused priest. She would not comment on any possible deficiencies with regard to the archdiocese’s past procedures. Smith, for her part, has organized a multidisciplinary team of experts to sift through the evidence, a systematic approach that reflects her own professional training.

“I am a former child-abuse prosecutor, and I’m bringing together what I know to be the best way to assess child-abuse allegations,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “The hope is that the lessons learned by the team will be valuable to the archdiocese moving forward. The delegate and the cardinal will receive the team’s recommendations.”

Smith noted that her team includes pediatricians, psychiatrists and law enforcement experts with extensive experience investigating sexual-abuse cases.

‘Boundary Violations’

The scathing grand-jury report appeared to blindside Cardinal Rigali. Initially, he publicly disputed the grand jury’s findings, then suspended several priests, and finally removed a total of 26 accused clerics.

In a replay of a broader Church debate that has sought to balance a policy of “zero tolerance” of clerical predators with due process for accused priests, Cardinal Rigali’s actions have been attacked from all sides. Chastised for allowing priests with “credible accusations” of abuse to remain in their posts, the cardinal has also been criticized for suspending priests who had already been cleared of abuse charges and others accused of boundary violations who may pose no risk to society.

Richard Fitzgibbons, a Pennsylvania-based psychiatrist who serves as a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy, and Peter Kleponis, a psychologist and colleague, challenged the suspension of some of the priests “previously evaluated by competent professionals and found innocent without further accusations being brought forward.”

“One of these priests [suspended in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia] was evaluated by us and by the leading forensic psychologist in Delaware County for ‘boundary violations.’ Our reports indicated that he had not engaged in any inappropriate behaviors in his priestly ministry to students at the parish school,” said Fitzgibbons and Kleponis in a statement. In a subsequent interview, Kleponis asked, “Why did the archdiocese lump together priests accused of criminal actions with others accused of boundary violations?”

Not in Compliance

That question was put to Gina Smith, who explained that the scope of her investigation was dictated by cases singled out in the grand jury report. Asked to characterize a “boundary violation,” Smith said, “At the end of my review I will be able to characterize the boundary issues in these cases.”

Some groups of protesters have suggested that a greater level of transparency is needed for diocesan audits, and they propose that independent auditors make the personnel files of accused priests available for review. Smith said she wasn’t prepared to make any such recommendation until her investigation was completed.

“What I know about the audit is that it addresses quantitative issues — whether something is present or not present. It doesn’t necessarily address qualitative issues addressed by the grand jury. I don’t know enough about it to comment further,” she said.

Teresa Kettelkamp, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, acknowledged the broader significance of the Philadelphia investigation. “Nothing in Philly’s audit was a red flag,” said Kettelkamp, who stressed that she was unfamiliar with the specifics of the ongoing investigation.

Kettelkamp couldn’t predict the full scope of the bishops’ upcoming review of the charter, but she expected they would address an expanded definition of the sexual abuse of minors issued by the Vatican in July 2010.

The new Vatican definition states that “a person who habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor.” That offense also incorporates “the acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of 14, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology.”

Kettelkamp agreed that the crisis in Philadelphia had injected some urgency into the bishops’ upcoming review of the Dallas Charter. But she also acknowledged the limits of any such framework. “We can make the Church as safe as it can be, but there is still sin. Philly has taken the wind out of many sails, but it hasn’t taken away our hope.”

While she would not respond directly to criticism raised by those who question the removal of priests flagged for boundary violations, she made the general point that such cases should be quickly resolved, rarely necessitating a suspension.

The 2010 USCCB audit cited several examples of boundary violations: “kissing girls on top of the head, inappropriate hugging, and an adult patting a minor on the knee. In all cases civil authorities were called, and an investigation was conducted; also in all cases the civil authorities concluded there was no sexual misconduct.”

There have been calls to strengthen the rights of priests by modifying the zero-tolerance policy, allowing accused clerics to confront their accuser, and facilitating appeals in the United States, rather than in Rome.

Bishop William Skylstad, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Baker, Ore., served on the USCCB administrative board when the Dallas Charter was established. He acknowledged that “there’s always been a discussion about the zero-tolerance issue. But when you talk to parents, it’s not an issue.”

The Diocese of Baker, then overseen by Santa Rosa, Calif., Bishop Robert Vasa, was identified in the 2010 audit as one of two U.S. dioceses not in compliance with the charter. “We are working toward compliance,” said Bishop Skylstad. “There is a small issue: Some parents don’t want others talking with their children about sexual abuse, yet most sexual abuse occurs in the home.”

The crisis in Philadelphia, he said, served as a reminder that the actions of one bishop “reflect on the whole conference. All the good work that has been done has been weakened. We have to continue to work hard to implement the charter. How can we do it better and smarter?”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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