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21 Philadelphia priests accused of abuse suspended

Sweeping step follows grand jury report

Cardinal Justin Rigali had initially said there were no priests in active ministry accused of sexual abuse. Cardinal Justin Rigali had initially said there were no priests in active ministry accused of sexual abuse.
By Katharine Q. Seelye
New York Times / March 9, 2011

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NEW YORK — The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced yesterday that it had suspended 21 priests from active ministry in connection with accusations that involved sexual abuse or otherwise inappropriate behavior with minors.

The mass suspension was the single-most sweeping in the history of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, which archives documents from the abuse scandal in dioceses across the country.

The archdiocese’s action follows a damning grand jury report issued Feb. 10 that accused the archdiocese of a widespread cover-up of predatory priests, stretching over decades, and said that as many as 37 priests remained active in the ministry despite credible accusations against them.

Of those 37 priests, 21 were suspended; three others already had been placed on administrative leave after the grand jury detailed accusations against them. Five others would have been suspended, the church said in a statement, but three are no longer active and two are no longer active in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The church said that in eight cases, no further investigation was warranted.

The statement said the accusations against the 21 ranged from “sexual abuse of a minor to boundary issues with minors’’ but did not describe them further.

Nor did it name the 21 it suspended, drawing the fury of groups representing abuse victims. Many parishioners are likely to learn that their priest was accused when he fails to appear for Ash Wednesday services today.

The announcement was a major embarrassment for Cardinal Justin Rigali, who, in response to the grand jury report, had initially said there were no priests in active ministry “who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them.’’

A few days later, Rigali placed three priests on administrative leave. His statement yesterday did not explain why he had made his initial assurances nor did it say why the priests had not been suspended earlier.

“We may have to be asking, what did the cardinal know and when did he know it?’’ said Leonard Norman Primiano, a Roman Catholic and chairman of the religious studies department at Cabrini College, in suburban Radnor, Pa. He described the mass suspensions as “astonishing.’’

At a minimum, the scope of the suspensions underscored the grand jury’s contention that the archdiocese had failed to clean house after a grand jury report in 2005 found credible accusations of abuse by 63 priests. And it suggested that potentially, predatory priests had had access to thousands of children for years.

The grand jury report prompted the indictment last month of four priests and a parochial school teacher. They include Monsignor William Lynn, the first senior church official in the United States to face criminal charges of covering up abusive behavior.

Rigali, 75, said the suspensions were interim measures, pending fuller investigations. And he apologized for the behavior of abusive priests.

“I am truly sorry for the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse, as well as to the members of our community who suffer as a result of this great evil and crime,’’ he said. He is expected to address the issue today in a noon service at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. He has scheduled a penitential service for Friday.

Those on leave are not allowed to celebrate Mass publicly, wear collars, or hear confessions. They were given a few hours’ notice to leave their parishes before the announcement.

Once the identities of the suspended priests become public, analysts said, there could be a dam-breaking effect as there was in Boston in 2002, when initial reports led to more sexual-abuse allegations. Since the grand jury report in Philadelphia, two alleged victims have filed civil suits, and Jeff Armstrong, a lawyer representing them, said he had received “dozens’’ of calls from others who might file.

“We’re approaching this with a new vigor,’’ Armstrong said. “Like Boston, this is a watershed moment, where all of a sudden the secrets are no longer kept and permission is given to break the silence to this whole survivors’ community.’’

If charges against the priests are upheld, the church could face a payout of millions of dollars in settlements. The charges come at a stressful time for the church, with membership and parochial school enrollment declining.

The archdiocese announced last week that it was closing seven schools in June; it has already closed more than 40 since 2006.

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