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Government, Politics & Issues

Rigali acts against accused priests in Philadelphia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2011 - Cardinal Justin Rigali, a former St. Louis archbishop, today placed 21 Philadelphia area priests on administrative leave, pending further investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of minors.

Rigali has led Philadelphia Catholics since he left St. Louis in late 2004.

His action comes more than two weeks after a Philadelphia grand jury found that 37 active Philadelphia priests had credible accusations of sex abuse of minors. Until the grand jury's report, all these priests were still living near children, saying Mass and wearing the Roman collar, with parishioners who were unaware that anyone had accused the men of abuse.

A historic move in the decades-old horrific saga of sex abuse by clergy was marked when the Philadelphia prosecutor, Seth Williams, presented evidence and arguments that convinced the grand jury to indict four clerics. Those indicted include Philadelphia Msgr. William J. Lynn, who oversaw the Philly priests' personal placement and reassignments for Rigali. Lynn was indicted on two criminal counts for covering up criminal actions of the abusers. The jury said that in reassigning and moving priests Lynn placed children in harm's way.

"These have been difficult weeks since the release of the grand jury report: difficult most of all for victims of sexual abuse, but also for all Catholics and for everyone in our community," Rigali said in a statement Tuesday. "I wish to express again my sorrow for the sexual abuse of minors committed by any members of the church, especially clergy. 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."

About a week after the grand jury report, Rigali suspended from ministry Lynn and three other priests who were named. He also appointed an independent investigator to lead what Rigali called in a statement a "re-examination" of accusations against priests. That investigator is Gina Maisto Smith, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who for nearly two decades prosecuted child sexual assault cases.

One of the priests went on a Philadelphia radio program to protest his innocence. In addition to the 21 suspended today and three priests were put on administrative leave more than a week ago, another of the 37 was already on leave. Two others are "incapacitated," the archdiocese said, meaning neither is in active ministry. Two other priests belong to religious orders and no longer serve in the archdiocese of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia archbishop has no power over other dioceses, but has notified the superiors of their religious orders and the bishops of the dioceses where they now live of the allegations against them. The remaining eight priests will not be subject to administrative leave, according to Smith's current investigation.

Five years ago another Philadelphia grand jury under the prior district attorney indicted priests no longer in the priesthood.

So far, Rigali has not spoken publicly on the issues but communicated with his flock by giving homilies on other subjects and releasing this statement:

"Sexual abuse of children is a crime. It is always wrong and gravely evil. Protecting children, preventing child abuse and assisting victims are priorities of the archdiocese of Philadelphia. The grand jury report makes clear that for as much as the archdiocese has done to address child sexual abuse, there is still much to do."

Many of the priests' alleged crimes against children were committed when Rigali's predecessor Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was at the Philadelphia archdiocese's helm.

The grand jury found that the archdiocese failed then and into this winter either to remove the priests from ministry or to report criminal allegations against minors to authorities.

The archdiocese's slow response defies the National Conference of Catholic Bishops own 2004 "Dallas" Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.The charter calls for immediate removal of any priest with creditable allegations of abuse before sundown, with investigations to follow.

The charter adopted at the 2002 meeting of the Conference of Catholic Bishops required that every diocese welcome FBI trained investigators and other objective investigators to audit each U.S. dioceses' procedures. The bishops funded the New York University's John Jay School of Criminal Justice study of the issue. Under the charter, every diocese must train all who deal with children including volunteers in the observation of proper boundaries between children and adults. They also train those near children on church grounds how to recognize effects of child abuse in those children who may not have reported it.

All Catholic seminaries also were examined to see that they not foster, in the next generation of priests, a culture of secrecy that permitted or led to covering up such criminal actions.

The Philadelphia jury's findings may cause a great drop in trust not only among the 1.1 million Philadelphia Catholics and their neighbors but across the country.

"It's a long overdue small step forward that leaves unaddressed the root causes of this recklessness and callousness of the corrupt Philadelphia hierarchy," said David Clohessy of St. Louis/ Clohessy  is director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the best known of several advocacy groups for survivors and their lawyers.

"Many victims and Catholics in Philly, are left seriously wondering how effective the bishops' so-called reforms really are, if dozens and dozens of credibly accused priests in one archdiocese alone are kept in ministry for years." Clohessy said he was distressed that today's announcement did not include the names of the priests.

Bishops rarely speak out to criticize each other because they all report directly to the pope and not to any American leader. But the archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, told a WWL.870 AM radio that there was "no excuse for a cover-up ... because we are endangering the lives of people, the lives of children."

The spokesperson for the St. Louis archdiocese said it doesn't comment on such issues in other places.

Rigali's reputation for distancing himself from the criminal issue of sex abuse of minors was well known in St. Louis. In 2002, Rigali assigned then St. Louis Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Dolan to investigate allegations against any archdiocesan priests. Dolan is now the New York archbishop. Within days, Dolan had removed two priests with whom he shared a rectory at Our Lady of Sorrows in south St. Louis for old allegations. Dolan stood before the parishioners -- some of them angry at him for removing the men -- and announced the removal. More men were removed in the following months.

After Dolan left St. Louis, Rigali assigned Monsignor Richard Stika as head of the sex abuse issue for the St. Louis archdiocese. Several men were removed from the priesthood under his watch. One went to trial and served time in prison. Stika is now the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn. One allegation has come to light there. The day it came to light, Stika interviewed the accused priest, removed him from ministry and held a news conference and played the video of that conference on the Knoxville diocesan video website all in one day.

"We remove priests immediately," he told this reporter months later. "It's best to act right away and get it all out."

In the spring of 2002 when Rigali was asked by this reporter if he had spoken to the survivors of sex abuse by clergy, Rigali explained he had delegated that work.

"It is not my job," he said.

Rigali was archbishop of St. Louis from 1994 until 2004 when in the fading days of Pope John Paul II's term, the pope transferred him to Philadelphia. Shortly before Rigali began his work in Philadelphia, when he was living in St. Louis, the pope named him a cardinal. Rigali was known here for his staunch advocacy for an end to capital punishment and prohibiting Catholic hospitals from removing water and nourishment from the dying.

He is best remembered here for bringing Pope John Paul II to St. Louis in January 1999. It marked the 300th anniversary of the first Mass in St. Louis archdiocese and was the first time a sitting pope had visited St. Louis. (Pius XII and John Paul II had both visited the city as cardinals before their papal elections.) Rigali also was an effective fundraiser.

Before arriving in St. Louis, Rigali had spent three decades working for the Vatican, mostly in Rome. A Los Angeles native, he first moved to Rome as a young priest to study canon law in 1961. He did not live in the United States. again until his St. Louis posting in 1994. Rigali has been expected to move back to Rome upon retirement.

Last year on his 75th birthday he submitted his letter of retirement to Pope Benedict XVI as required by canon, or church, law.

Patricia Rice is a St. Louis journalist who has long covered religion.

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