Another Long Lent

The abuse crisis resurfaces in Philadelphia

In February, 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 [PDF] 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 were to:

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 exposé, 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. (A lay teacher is accused of abusing the same boy in 2000.) And Brennan is charged with assaulting a fourteen-year-old boy in ’96. Avery was on assignment until 2003; Brennan until 2006; and Engelhardt until this year. As secretary for clergy, Msgr. William Lynn knowingly kept those men in ministry. That’s why he is indicted for child endangerment.

Lynn is the first diocesan official to be indicted in the abuse crisis. He served as secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, and his responsibilities included handling abusive priests. Lynn was also a major figure in the ’05 grand-jury report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. After that grand jury criticized the archdiocese for not cooperating with the investigation, a diocesan lawyer responded, “Every witness testified as long as was required.” The Philadelphia district attorney shot back: “It is astonishing that the archdiocese would have the temerity to assert that all of its witnesses freely answered all questions. Msgr. Lynn should be asked whether, under the veil of secrecy of the grand jury, he in reality invoked his Fifth Amendment right to silence, putting a complete halt to all questioning.”

In other words, during the ’05 investigation, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s secretary for clergy took the Fifth. That is Lynn’s constitutional right, of course, but is that the response one expects from a priest who is asked whether he protected children from abusers? Lynn avoided indictment in ’05 because the statute of limitations had run out. Not this time: these instances of abuse allegedly occurred within the statutory period. Lynn and the three other priests will have their day in court—and must be presumed innocent until proved otherwise.

Ironically, this news comes just as some bishops, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, have started floating the idea that the zero-tolerance policy should be moderated. The zero-tolerance norm has been criticized for failing to distinguish between lesser and more serious acts of sexual abuse. If a priest is guilty of inappropriate touching, critics raise the question, should he be treated the same way as a priest who has raped a child?

It’s a difficult question. Yet critics should remember why the USCCB adopted such a strict measure. As the scandal widened, it became clear that too many bishops had allowed credibly accused priests to continue in ministry—or even reassigned them without informing the new parish or diocese, where they sometimes went on to abuse again. The policy is certainly not perfect—nor has it been followed perfectly. But zero tolerance has made it harder for bishops to find excuses to keep a wayward priest in ministry. It also helped bishops win back people’s trust.

Given the revelations in the February grand-jury report, Philadelphians will need a lot more convincing. The grand jury criticizes the previous archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. Its report also mentions auxiliary bishops—two of whom have gone on to run dioceses of their own.

For example, Joseph Cistone—now bishop of Saginaw—served as Lynn’s assistant. On Sepember 28, 1992, Lynn and Cistone interviewed one of Avery’s victims, “James.” According to the grand-jury report, James told Lynn and Cistone that Avery first touched him on an overnight trip with altar boys at the priest’s house at the Jersey shore.

Following that interview, Lynn spoke with Avery, who admitted that he might have accidentally touched James inappropriately. (He also told Lynn that he’d adopted six Hmong children—a disclosure the archdiocese never bothered to investigate, according to the grand jury.) So Avery was sent away for evaluation, followed by several months of treatment. In October 1993, Avery was discharged from the hospital with the recommendation that his ministry be restricted to adults. But by December—over a year after the bishops adopted the ’92 abuse policies—Avery was assigned to a parish with an elementary school. Several years later, according to the grand-jury report, he abused a ten-year-old altar boy. That’s what he is indicted for. But Avery was not suspended until 2003, eleven years after the first allegation—and one year after the USCCB adopted the Dallas Norms.

Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Thomas—together with now-Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior, then vicar for clergy—signed off on a questionable decision by the archdiocesan review board. The victim, “Ben,” came forward as an adult to report abuse he suffered as an altar boy. A year earlier the archdiocese had received a similar complaint about the same priest from another victim who didn’t know Ben. Yet the board “found Ben’s allegations unsubstantiated." According to the grand jury, Bishop Senior "concurred with the review board’s recommendations, as did auxiliary Bishop Daniel Thomas.” Within a year of that decision, Ben committed suicide.

In another case, the review board determined that Fr. Stephen Perzan was not a threat, despite the fact that the archdiocese had fielded complaints from his own pastor, the parish school principal, and the parish director of religious education. They warned that Perzan spent too much time alone with children—especially in confession. Their concerns were substantiated when a former student at a juvenile detention center where Perzan worked came forward to tell the archdiocese that the priest had masturbated him several times. The victim was fourteen at the time. While the archdiocese was investigating that claim, someone else at that facility informed the archdiocese that Perzan had molested him too. Despite those accusations, the board allowed Perzan to serve in a parish with a “safety plan.” The grand jury reports:

Bishop Senior and Cardinal Rigali approved the review board’s recommendation and permitted Fr. Perzan to remain the parochial vicar at a parish with a school. Auxiliary Bishop Michael Burbridge and Bishop Joseph Cistone were given the opportunity to review the recommendations before Cardinal Rigali approved it. None of these officials, apparently, saw anything wrong with the review board’s findings.

Burbridge is now bishop of Raleigh.

What was wrong with the Philadelphia review board and the bishops who signed off on their decisions? Who instructed board members on the standard of proof? The fact that bishops approved the board’s mistaken recommendations doesn’t mean they committed a crime; the grand jury would have indicted those bishops if it had come to that conclusion. Still, their failures ought to give pause to critics of zero tolerance. As should the admitted failure of Cardinal Francis George, who—three years after lobbying for zero tolerance in Dallas—refused the advice of his own review board and allowed an abusive priest to remain in ministry. Until there are no more Bostons, no more Philadelphias, no more Chicagos, any talk of softening zero tolerance remains premature. Without that policy, we’d be asked simply to trust such bishops’ judgment. As any Philadelphia parent would ask, Why should we?

Related: The Fog of Scandal, by Ana Maria Catanzaro
Preaching to Bishops, by Thomas Lynch
Fraternal Correction and The Scandal of Secrecy, by Nicholas P. Cafardi
Truth or Consequences, by Cathleen Kaveny
A Victim's Defense of Priests
, by Terry Donovan Urekew

From dotCommonweal: The Distinction Between 'Credible' & 'Established' in Philadelphia

About the Author

Nicholas P. Cafardi is a civil and canon lawyer. He is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law. Cafardi was one of the original members of the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth. His book Before Dallas (Paulist Press) is a history of the clergy child sexual-abuse crisis in the United States.



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The fact that two priests and a lay teacher 'passed around' a ten year old for sex puts a new and different spin on the extent of crime and mind set of the perps and their cover-up superiors. Were the superiors aware of the 'passing around' and if not why not? . How dare they refuse to sit down and answer 'did you know of the 'passing around'?? What this is called on the INTERNET stories when it happens  by stupid teen agers is called 'gang banging'.

Will the 90% of the silent  pew Catholics answer a call for stern/drastic/urgent reform when they are told that gang banging is the modus operandi of these clerics?  Never in my memory have a depraved bunch of teenagers, been accused of gang banging a ten year old. That level of depravity need the ripening of age. Private sins and crimes are one thing , conspiracies of sin and crime have another name. It's criminal gang banging..Cardinal Rigali calls them  'violations of boundaries' WE say gang banging.

Ed & Peg Gleason

Also in November 1992, Archbishop Pilarczyk, then-President, NCCB/USCC, wrote to Fr. Tom Doyle about the 1985 abuse report Doyle had co-authored for US bishops. (letter in A SHORT HISTORY ... p.20)    He dismissively pointed out in 1992 that the report contributed nothing new since the bishops had already known and done so much (and other institutions were just as bad in child sexual abuse).   He declared that "it has never been our intention either to hide the problem or to walk away from the problem".  Most intentions since demonstrated on "the problem" range from questionable to despicable.  


In hindsight, Dallas was a coverup.  The challenge facing the bishops was to shine the spotlight of public attention sharply on undeniable evil-doers, the abusers -  which they did -  while minimizing reflections on the principals who facilitated, concealed, and managed the abusers  -  which they also did.   Efforts of media, grand juries, and some very courageous victims have countered the episcopal strategy of delay, obscure, and carry on as before to some degree but, as recent events show, haven't squelched it.   Years of pained experience in the US indicate it is futile to look to Catholic Cardinals and Bishops for minimally moral behavior when it comes to child sexual abuse.   It's not only Philadelphia parents who can find no reason to trust the judgment of the individuals that constitute the USCCB.   What they stand for is clear beyond doubt.  The reactions of bishops nationwide to the 2nd Philadelphia Grand Jury report is telling.


The “Zero Tolerance” policy was never anything more than a slick public relations ploy used by US bishops to try to get out in front of the tsunami of negative press that engulfed the US church in the wake of reports of priestly sexual abuse and corrupt archdiocesan officials (read Cardinal Law) in the Boston Globe in the winter of 2001.

I chaired the San Francisco review board when now Cardinal William Levada and his canonist Rev. Gregory Ingles, who was on the drafting committee for the “Dallas Charter,” shared an advance copy of the working document with the SF review board.

[Incidentally, this was before Ingles would himself be criminally indicted by a Marin County grand jury for sexual assaults on students while he was a high school religion teacher in the 1970s. Talk about a fox in the henhouse???]

Levada and Ingels both speculated that the Zero-Tolerance policy was “extra canonical” and would have difficulty getting the approbation from Ratzinger and the Inquisition (CDF), who had been charged by JP2 with managing the church’s response to the burgeoning crisis.

Despite their misgivings, Levada and Ingels agreed that in the media maelstrom that was growing around the priest sex abuse scandal the church had no other choice but to go for Zero-Tolerance, given the threat to the church (read, the power of the hierarchs).

I recall extended conversations on the review board about how Zero-Tolerance would effectively cut loose priests to confront on their own the brunt of the scandal raging over the church.

Levada sanguinely observed that he felt terrible for “his brother priests” who would feel abandoned by the hierarchy. He was right.

Nonetheless, Levada was sending the unvarnished message to priests on the front line in the parishes: You are on your own! We will do what we can for you, but you just may not be "inside" when we close the wagons around the hierarchy.

Besides being conniving corrupt politicians, bishops have also proved to be cowards!

Has the Zero-Tolerance policy increased the safety of children? YES, marginally, if only in that it has removed some of the biggest repeat offenders from circulation where they could continue to abuse and exploit children.

Has the Zero-Tolerance policy been an unmitigated success in preventing perpetrators from having access to new victims? NO, mainly because secretly the church hierarchy is still completely mobilized to protect their own political power in the church – nothing else matters to them.

It has been suggested by some (a Rev. Thomas Guarino for one) that Zero-Tolerance and forced laicization “distorts the theology of the priesthood.”  I don't have much sympathy for that.

Try peddling that bizarre notion to the tens of thousands of survivors of rape and sodomy by priests and bishops around the world!

Isn’t that the real revelation of the abuse scandal: the priesthood has been DISTORTED??? DON’T WE HAVE TO FIX THE PRIESTHOOD FIRST???

There is no evidence in the scientific literature that would support Guarino’s suggestion that “forgiveness and rehabilitation of the sinning priest” “could protect children and young people.”

There is no known treatment for sexual perversions and sexual deviancy. Recidivism and re-offending rates are just too high. That is why we must imprison rapists, removing from them access to the general population.

That is why our first priority is SAFETY of children, not the rehabilitation of predator perpetrator priests.

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, the bishops’ go-to psychologist, director of the Maryland treatment center were many priest offenders were sent, who has treated multiple predator priest perpetrators [we have to assume unsuccessfully], may lament “the justifiable outrage [of “the people”] with this crime blinds us to more rational thinking.”

I’m sorry that we can’t be more “rational" for Rossetti’s tastes. But, Rossetti offers no viable alternatives for ensuring the safety of children and vulnerable adults from sexual exploitation by priests.

In fact, Rossetti and his brother bishops have been negligent, I would say intentionally so, in creating any meaningful program to alert the public by revealing the names of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Nor, have they devised appropriate supervision and after-care of perpetrator priests who have been removed from ministry but continue to be financially supported by the church, and who now have greater opportunity and freedom to menace even more children with abuse.

Zero Tolerance, indeed!

In the last paragraph, Cafardi tries to blame the Philly review board for the fact that dozens of credibly accused offender priests were kept in ministry for months and years around unsuspecting families and kids.  As of a month ago, Rigali was four months late in replying with a grand jury subpoena in Philly. There's still no indication that he has fully complied.  So we must ask: If Rigali won't even respond to a prosecutor's subpoena, what are the odds that he voluntarily gives his hand-picked review board all the information it needs and deserves?

Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, 636-433-2511

What we have here can be understood as an infection that has gone untended, with predictable results.   It’s not just in Philadelphia.  It’s grown complicated and with that, has resisted treatment. 

             Among the complications is that this issue has been adopted by people who are advocating for other developments.   Married priests, women priests, throwing homosexuals out of the priesthood, openly accepting homosexuals into the priesthood, a return to the pre-Vatican II church, the development of a post-Vatican II church.   This issue of the sexual abuse of children by priests has attracted a lot of confusing attention.    

             This complication of taking the issue in a different direction has meant that the hierarchy can be joyfully distracted into defending their dogmatic turf and can do this energetically.   They are lost somewhere in the high Middle Ages, believing that their authority is absolute and they are not accountable to anyone but the Bishop of Rome.   I think they need to be starkly confronted with the realities of the sexual abuse of children rather than distracted by speculation of what might have prevented it and rumination on the sources of their authority.   Sex abuse by priests wasn’t prevented, their source of authority is not the issue and here we are.

             What we need are bishops who are willing to do their part in treating this infection in our church.  We need bishops who identify with the victims first and foremost and educate themselves to the destruction of inner life that is wreaked on those who are so victimized.   What they may expect to encounter are people who don’t trust themselves at all, people who cannot confidently reach within to orient themselves to situations, people who are vulnerable to addictions, people who are vulnerable to manipulation and who have very little in the way of useful defenses against pressure because they are battling chaos and self-hatred most of the time.  And once you realize that many more people have been sexually abused as children but not by priests, then a recognition of the way in which the compassionate love of Christ might be brought to bear on this entire situation.  

             We need bishops who are willing to be good leaders---not figure heads dressed in costumes who only recognize the vertical plane.  We need bishops who can listen to people, who can deputize other listeners and gather the concerns of the people of God so that these concerns may be considered seriously and give a direction to the work of the leadership.

             We need bishops who realize that until they listen, until they take action in support of the victims of priests, they are like people who have cashed out their credit cards and are not trusted to have any moral sense at all, let alone teaching authority.

             We need bishops who act like brothers to each other rather than like partners in crime.   We need bishops who are shepherds to the flock and can see the wolves of anger and anguish, of yearning and shattering disappointment they have unleashed among us, through their subterfuge. 

             We wait on the conversion of our bishops.  It is that conversion to Christ that will allow the painful and dangerous infection in our Church to be fully treated.  It is they who are resistant.  Because of this they have the full attention of the news media and local law enforcement authorities.  Until they are willing to do their job, until they stop trying to act as law enforcement themselves, this attention will shine steadily on them.    


Make that "And once you realize that many more people have been sexually abused as children, not necessarily by priests, then a recognition of the way in which the compassionate love of Christ might be brought to bear on this entire situation could develop."

      And meanwhile, down in Washington DC, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Nuncio, was busy not doing due diligence as he made up a short list (or a single nomination?) for coadjutor bishop of Santa Rosa -- a diocese with a long and sad history of both sexual and financial shenanigans. Why, fully ten years into the sexual abuse crisis, would the Vatican's ambassador to the U.S. decide to include a bishop with a shaky record in handling such cases as a nominee for diocese suffering grievously from the problem?  Is this incompetence or corruption? 

       Could we please have a smarter, wiser, more compassionate nominator of future bishops?  Or is Rome's attitude (and it is Rome and ultimately the Pope himself who chose the finalist who was appointed) that all of this will blow over, is unimportant, and people just need to be happy with the bishops we give them?  And to hell with Vatican II?

Lynn and the three other priests will have their day in court—and must be presumed innocent until proved otherwise.

Geez it doesn't sound like that way.  He should not even get a trail.  Usually there are two sides to every story but here there is only one.


Let's play a game of pretend. Let's pretend that these things happened yesterday and not 30, 40 or 50 years ago and that attitudes towards children and child sex abuse were exactly as they are in the year 2011. (See Roman Polanski.) Let's pretend that psychologists 40 years ago actually told the church that these guys could NOT be rehabilitated and the church ignored their advice. Let's pretend that there is not an unreported epidemic of sex abuse in the public schools and in the Boy Scouts. (Where are the headlines about sex abuse in the government school system--where the problem is a reported 100 times worse TODAY than anything ever in the Catholic church?) Let's pretend that critics of the church are really concerned about sex abuse and not shaking with hatred towards the Catholic church for it's failure to join the sexual revolution--which we now know has worked out quite well with an AIDS epidemic, abortion on demand, stratospheric levels of divorce and millions of young urban black kids without any fathers or any hope of a decent life. And finally let's pretend that there is absolutely no media bias towards the Catholic church. For more on this see:




Unfortunately, "Long Lents" will continue until the hierarchy is held accountable for spreading crimes of child abuse.  What is needed is a "zero tolerance" policy for anyone in the Church, including the Pope, who covers up clergy sexual abuse - and that is something the Vatican will never allow. 

Brian; Where does it say I and mine have to presume innocence. We're not 'on any stinking jury' for your pretend games... let's pretend/act that on the Church is in a huge mess'

"as  for your pretend games...."

Yes, but Brian DOES have a point. There are tens millions of kids being abused everywhere in the world today. The data is out there and can be verified. This catastrophic reality, however, should all the more spur on Catholics to higher and better standards -- to absolute zero tolerance -- to clean up the mess in the church.  

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