Another Long Lent: Abuse Crisis Resurfaces in Philadelphia

By Cafardi, Nicholas P. | Commonweal, April 8, 2011 | Go to article overview

Another Long Lent: Abuse Crisis Resurfaces in Philadelphia


Cafardi, Nicholas P., Commonweal


Last month, three Philadelphia priests were indicted for sexual abuse, and their former vicar for clergy was charged with child endangerment. Perhaps more troubling, those indictments came after a grand jury found "substantial evidence of abuse" committed by at least thirty-seven other priests who remained in active ministry. In response, Cardinal Justin Rigali said that "there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them." Six days later the archbishop placed three of the thirty-seven on administrative leave. Three weeks after that, he suspended another twenty-one.

For Philadelphia Catholics, the shocking news was not altogether surprising. They recall a 2005 grand-jury report that harshly criticized the archdiocese for its handling of sexually abusive priests. Still, nearly a decade after the scandal exploded in Boston, Catholics want to know: How could this happen again? Haven't we been down this road before?

Yes, we have.

In 1992 the U.S. bishops arrived at their November meeting to find a crowd of protesters. The protesters were angry about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' inaction on sexual abuse. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, then president of the USCCB, asked three bishops to meet with the victims group and report to the conference. Their report resulted in a motion from the floor that was adopted by the USCCB. That was the first time the bishops as a group had spoken on the sexual-abuse crisis, even though it had been brewing since 1984, when the case of Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe garnered national attention.

The resolution held that bishops would:

1. Respond promptly to all allegations of abuse where there is reasonable belief that abuse has occurred;

2. If such an allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, relieve the alleged offender promptly of ministerial duties and make a referral for appropriate medical evaluation and intervention;

3. Comply with obligations of civil law to report the incident and cooperate with any investigation by civil authorities;

4. Reach out to victims and their families and communicate sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being; and

5. Within the confines of respect for privacy of the individuals involved, deal as openly as possible with the members of the community.

All good ideas. None mandatory. That policy lacked the force of canon law, and therefore bishops were free to ignore it. There was a time when a bishops conference could more easily legislate for its national church. But the 1983 Code of Canon Law required unanimous consent in order to enact binding rules on the bishops of a national conference. That standard has never been met.

After the USCCB had adopted the 1992 policy, no bishop could in good conscience keep an abusive priest on active assignment. Yet some did. Boston priests John Geoghan and Paul Shanley were in ministry after '92. Those assignments led to the Boston Globe's 2002 expose, which in turn reactivated a crisis that still shakes the church. In November of that year at a meeting in Dallas, the USCCB adopted new norms, which resembled the policy they had approved a decade earlier. With Vatican approval, the '02 norms became canon law for the church in the United States. The Dallas Norms, as they came to be known, included a so-called zero-tolerance policy, which holds that no priest who has admitted to, or has been shown to have committed, even one sexually abusive act against a minor can remain in ministry.

Why then, nearly ten years after Rome approved the Dallas Norms, are Philadelphians wondering whether their archdiocese has become another Boston? According to last month's grand-jury report, three known abusers--Fr. Edward Avery, Fr. Charles Engelhardt, and Fr. James Brennan--were in ministry well after 1992. Avery and Engelhardt have been charged with molesting a ten-year-old boy in '98 and '99. …

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