Church in the World
Suspension of 21 priests revives sex-abuse scandal Michael Sean Winters - 12 March 2011
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia this week removed 21 priests from active ministry – the largest single suspension of clergy in US history. The men were named in a grand jury report published last month which indicated that the archdiocese had failed to remove clergy against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse had been lodged. The report marked the worst crisis since the sex-abuse scandal exploded in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002.
In response to the report, Philadelphia’s archbishop, Cardinal Justin Rigali, last month announced that the chancery was suspending three named priests and re-opening investigations into 34 other cases. On Tuesday, 21 of the 34 priests were informed that they were being put on administrative leave and told to vacate their rectories. In a statement, Cardinal Rigali said: “These administrative leaves are interim measures. They are not in any way final determinations or judgements.”
In the month between the suspensions and the dismissals, no canonical process was undertaken, but a well-regarded former lay prosecutor, Gina Maisto Smith, was hired by the archdiocese to review the initial investigations. The cases of the removed priests will now be sent to Rome and decisions will be made on whether they should be laicised.
The revelation that clergy remained in ministry despite the existence of credible allegations raises the possibility that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has failed to abide by the norms for dealing with clergy sex abuse established by the US bishops in 2002. The bishops have always insisted that their adherence to the norms guaranteed the safety of children in the future.
In a rare criticism from a fellow bishop, Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond of New Orleans told a radio interviewer: “What has happened in Philadelphia, quite frankly, is very embarrassing to us.” Asked if chancery officials should be held legally accountable for criminal negligence and child endangerment, Archbishop Aymond said, “Yes. We are not, as clergy, above the law. If we do anything that is wrong, criminally, then we should have to pay for that.”
Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer, told The Tablet: “What troubles me is that the Dallas norms failed in Philadelphia or they weren’t being properly followed.” Dr Cafardi, author of Before Dallas: the US bishops’ response to clergy sex abuse, and an original member of the US Bishops’ National Review Board for Child Protection, said that “according to those norms, these men were not supposed to be in ministry”.
Dr Cafardi said the credibility of the entire American hierarchy was being tested by the Philadelphia revelations. “The bishops made promises to the American faithful and it now appears a major archdiocese, led by a prominent cardinal, did not keep those promises.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, an Associated Press investigation has found that some 50 former priests, removed from ministry because of sex abuse, have been living in California with no requirements that they inform neighbours or employers of the charges. Most of the cases never went to trial because the statute of limitations had lapsed.
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