Quick Action in Philadelphia

Recent investigations of sexual abuse and official neglect in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have yielded the first criminal indictment in the United States of a Church official.

PHILADELPHIA — The destructive power of sin — and the wake of pain and injustice that it brings — is sorrowfully on display again in the saga of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s confrontation with the District Attorney’s office over priests and lay staff who have allegedly abused minors sexually.

A searing grand jury report, released Feb. 10, charges four priests and a Catholic school teacher with criminal felonies, finds extensive fault with the archdiocese’s victim-assistance program, and asserts that 37 priests remain in active ministry although there are “credible complaints” against them.

It’s a déjà-vu scenario, coming six years after a similar grand jury investigation, which alleged an “immoral cover-up” by Church leadership of sexual abuse by priests, but resulted in no criminal charges.

The latest accusations have detonated like a dirty bomb, sending radioactive material in every direction — damaging the Church, the confidence of the faithful, the legacy of Cardinal Justin Rigali, and the reputations of priests who might be unjustly accused.

The archdiocese’s own newspaper, The Catholic Standard & Times, describes the Church as “reeling” and “shaken” as a result of the intensely damning charges.

The city’s Catholic leadership is getting very little credit for the things it has done right — such as reporting the abuse to law enforcement to start with — in part because the tone of the grand jury report is so profoundly caustic, sarcastic and even mocking about the Church that it has kicked off wave after wave of bad publicity.

Yet, it’s not merely anti-Church bias at work in the Philadelphia story, for it is impossible to read the graphic account of the grand jury’s two-year investigation without mourning for the victims — whose terrifying experiences propelled them into emotional trauma, drug abuse, theft and, in one case, suicide — and cursing the sickening accounts of depravity, which include sodomy in the House of God.

District Attorney Seth Williams, a Catholic, announced indictments against two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher for sodomizing and molesting an altar boy. The incidents occurred between 1998 and 2000, beginning when the child was 10 years old. Another priest was charged with raping and sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in 1996.

“I love my Church, but I detest the criminal behavior of priests who abuse or allow the abuse of children,” the district attorney declared. “I know, ultimately, they will be judged by higher authority. For now, it is my responsibility … to hold them accountable.”

First Indictment of a

Church Official

The fourth priest charged is Msgr. William Lynn, who served as secretary of the clergy for the archdiocese between 1998 and 2004. He was charged with two felony counts of endangering the welfare of children. This appears to be the first criminal indictment of a Church official in the United States, not for committing an act of sexual abuse, but for facilitating it by moving priests accused of molesting children to new assignments where they continued to harm others.

The five men who were arrested are: Father Charles Engelhardt, 64, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who was removed from ministry in January 2009 when the archdiocese reported accusations against him to the DA; Edward Avery, 68, who was removed from the ministry in 2003 and laicized in 2006; Father James Brennan, 47, who is in the process of a canonical trial and was forbidden to perform duties as a priest in 2006 when the archdiocese alerted law enforcement about him; Bernard Shero, 47, a former sixth grade teacher at a Catholic elementary school; and Msgr. Lynn, who has served as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church for the last six years.

According to a press release issued by the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province of the Oblates, Father Engelhardt “strongly denies” the charges; no other complaint had been received against him in more than 40 years of ministry. In Delaware, the Oblates were named in 24 civil lawsuits involving 14 members, eight of whom are dead, after the state Legislature lifted the statute of limitations permitting claims. Msgr. Lynn, through his lawyer, also asserts his innocence.

Cardinal Rigali Responds

District Attorney Williams acknowledged in a press conference Feb. 10 that it was the archdiocese itself that brought to the DA’s attention the cases that sparked the grand jury investigation.

“There have been many changes for the better,” he said about the Church. “Victims are receiving counseling and support, and the Church is reporting some abusers to law enforcement — something that never happened in the past. This investigation, in fact, began as a result of reports received from the archdiocese. The Church is to be commended for these improvements.”

But this affirmation has been utterly swamped by local and national media coverage emphasizing sensational negative aspects of the grand jury report: scathing criticism of the archdiocese for implementing a purportedly corrupt victim-assistance program and the ominous assertion that priests remain in active ministry despite “credible allegations of abuse.”

Cardinal Rigali moved quickly to respond.

Within 24 hours of the DA’s press conference, the cardinal announced he had hired a well-known victim advocate to advise him on the needs of victims and on implementing the grand jury’s recommendations. Mary Achilles worked for the DA’s office for 14 years as the state’s first victim advocate and advised the archdiocese between 2006 and 2008.

The cardinal hired a licensed psychologist to help ensure clergy compliance with the Church’s Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries, and he created a new position, a delegate for investigations, to help manage any new and historical cases.

The cardinal even went on YouTube with a three-minute “Message to the Faithful” in English and Spanish. He commiserated with Catholics who are “hurt and confused, perhaps quite angry and feeling betrayed” by the criminal charges and accusations against the Church’s treatment of sex-abuse victims.

Cardinal Rigali revealed no defensiveness or anger. Instead, he solemnly confirmed: “It is deeply painful that the sinful choices of some of our priests have caused great harm in the Church.” And he asked viewers to turn to Jesus.

‘Cleansing Approach’

Although the archdiocese’s immediate response was that no current priest in ministry has an “admitted or established” allegation of sexual abuse pending against him, within a week of the arrests, the cardinal suspended three active priests highlighted in the report as having credible, unresolved accusations of child abuse pending against them.

Declaring that the sexual abuse of children is “a crime … always wrong and gravely evil,” the cardinal also pledged to reopen all 37 of the cases mentioned by the grand jury in order to re-examine the suitability of these priests for ministry. To spearhead those investigations, the archdiocese hired Gina Maisto Smith, a former assistant district attorney in Philadelphia who prosecuted cases involving sex abuse and assault against children for almost 20 years.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, D.C.