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

Nicholas P. Cafardi is a civil and canon lawyer. He is Dean emeritus of Duquesne University School of Law and former general counsel to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. His most recent book is Voting and Faithfulness (Paulist Press, 2020).

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Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: View Contents
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