Friday, May 04, 2012

In Philadelphia, Judgment Day... Part One

Fourteen months after the largest single removal of priests from ministry in the history of the American church brought Philadelphia Catholicism's most seismic crisis in two centuries to the point of no return, resolutions to 27 cases of administrative leave finally began to emerge today as the city's new archbishop restored three of the men to active service, while permanently removing five others.

The process was sparked by a February 2011 municipal grand jury, the second probe in five and a half years on the Philadelphia church's handling of allegations. In its 126-page presentment -- which indicted the archdiocese's former chief of clergy personnel, Msgr William Lynn, with enabling a cover-up (making him the first US church official to face criminal action on his response to cases) -- the panel went on to allege that "as many as 37" priests, all but three unnamed, remained in active ministry there despite reports of misconduct which surfaced during the two-year civil investigation.

Despite Cardinal Justin Rigali's initial statement in the inquest's wake that no Philadelphia priest with full faculties had an "admitted or established" abuse claim against him, 21 clerics were placed on administrative leave less than four weeks later on a variety of allegations ranging from abuse to unspecified "boundary violations" that ran afoul of the archdiocese's standards for ministerial conduct. As the men had previously been cleared of the claims, largely by means of administrative processes, an extensive "second review" was chartered by the Chancery, to be undertaken by an investigatory team led by a former sex-crimes prosecutor.

Six more priests who fell under the review's scope were gradually removed at other points in the grand jury's aftermath. Another three clerics have been placed on leave since February, yet only one on an abuse allegation, decades-old and said to have taken place outside the country.

A final determination on eight of the cases was made by Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap., who met with the affected priests within the last 36 hours to inform them of their fates. According to a statement read at the start of an hour-long afternoon press conference announcing the moves (fullvideo), another six of the claims -- all of which were referred to law enforcement following the priests' placement on leave -- remain in the hands of prosecutors, preventing the start of an ecclesiastical probe until the civil examinations are completed. In the case of one of the clerics who died last summer, the church inquest's finding was deemed inconclusive.

In the remaining cases, Chaput said that the internal investigations had been completed, but awaited either a judgment by the archdiocese's review board or his final decision. Announcements on those are said to be soon in the offing. Due to the effects of the moves, the major yearly slate of clerical reassignments -- traditionally announced toward the end of May -- will reportedly be delayed two weeks.

Of the five men judged "unsuitable for ministry," four of the allegations dealt with violations of ministerial standards, the remaining one on a substantiated abuse claim. Two of the three restored priests had been accused of abuse, the other on a boundary violation. Citing a concern for the victims, the archdiocese said that any disclosure of the specifics of the allegations would be left to the judgment of an accuser or the priest himself, adding that it "would support" any decision the individuals made.

While several of the accused priests are retired, those who led parishes have remained as the canonical pastors of their churches during their leaves, with administrators filling in pending the outcome of the investigations. Over the course of the process, it has been said in local circles that, given the linking of their names to the scandals, at least some of the men have wondered "whether it [would be] worth it" to return to ministry should they be exonerated.

The priests permanently barred from ministry by the archdiocese are able to appeal the decisions to the Holy See. According to universal norms enacted by the Vatican in 2010, any allegation that "bears a semblance of truth" of an act against the Sixth Commandment by a cleric with a person under age 18 -- a scope which now likewise includes child pornography and abuse of a vulnerable adult -- is a canonical crime that must be reported by a diocese to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which determines the venue of the case's resolution either in a church tribunal, a local administrative process or a judgment of its own.

In his statement at today's presser, Chaput said that "Catholics have struggled with confusion and anger. When a child is harmed, the church has failed. When trust is lost, the church has failed. When the whole community suffers as a result, the church has failed."

Asked afterward by a reporter why it took a second grand jury to arrive at the new conclusions, however, the new archbishop said he didn't have the knowledge to address what took place in the archdiocese before his September arrival.

The initial 21 placed on leave on Mardi Gras 2011 -- a day seen by no shortage of Philadelphia clerics as the darkest moment of their priesthoods -- the tide of shock and anger birthed by the mass removal marked a historic breaking point in the once-vaunted local church, spurring a clerical revolt which led to the formation of an independent association of Philadelphia priests that quickly came to draw over 100 members. A reflection written by one of the group's leaders presented the men on leave as "21 martyrs" of the archdiocese's leaders.

Last July, Rigali's retirement at age 76 was accepted by Pope Benedict as the pontiff named Chaput -- a Kansas-born Capuchin who had never served in the Northeast -- as his successor, with a mandate for a thoroughgoing renewal of a Philadelphia fold that new archbishop said had nurtured an attitude of "complacency and pride" in a December pastoral letter.

Today's announcement of the first batch of decisions marks yet another resolution from among a pipeline of daunting processes set into motion over the year prior to Chaput's appointment.

A January proposal by a year-long Blue Ribbon Commission to merge or close 49 Catholic schools was later slimmed to 34 -- including the sparing of the four targeted high schools -- following an appeal process devised by the new incumbent. Last month brought a first wave of parish mergers, consolidating 12 communities into five as part of a region-by-region realignment effort planned since 2010 and expected to continue over another three years. (While most of the buildings will remain open as worship sites of the new parishes, structural conditions have forced the outright closure of one very symbolic site -- the massive Immaculate Conception church in the city's Germantown section, which had been employed as Philadelphia's last de facto pro-cathedral for several years during a 1950s renovation of the Cathedral-Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul.)

Back downtown, meanwhile, the landmark trial of Lynn and a suspended priest charged with abusing a boy in the late 1990s wrapped its sixth week of testimony yesterday, the prosecution continuing to advance its case with a torrent of documents subpoenaed from the Chancery's Secret Archive. Separate trials for another suspended priest and a former teacher likewise indicted by the grand jury are slated to begin in September, following which over a half-dozen civil lawsuits against the archdiocese will proceed to court. And most recently, extensive reviews of the 1.1 million-member church's legal, financial and organizational operations have been undertaken by the new administration, the results likely to be revealed in the approach to the July 1st start of the next fiscal year.

In a statement released over an hour before the press conference, the Survivors' Network for those Abused by Priests called the announcement and the process that led to it "disingenuous," adding its belief that "no institution can effectively investigate or police itself, certainly not an ancient, rigid, secretive, all-male one with a horrific track record on children’s safety."

SNAP's pre-emptive strike sought to shift the focus from the figure of the 27 on leave to the grand jury's "as many as 37" count of priests cited for alleged misconduct. The identities, assignments or nature of the potential claims against the additional clerics have never been released.

The lead victims' group having held a candlelight vigil outside the recently-renamed Pastoral Center last night, today's announcement coincided with the monthly demonstration at the Chancery of local survivors and their advocates. The latter protest has taken place each first Friday since the release of the second grand jury.

"We can’t change the past," the archbishop said in his subsequent remarks. "But I pray -- and I do believe -- 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."

Disclosure: in March, Chaput appointed this scribe as an at-large member of a new Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, the first body of its kind to be established in Philadelphia. No staff or officials of the archdiocese were involved in the preparation of this report.