The distinction between "credible" and "established" in Philadelphia

The announcement about the suspension of 21 priests in Philadelphia has brought renewed attention to Cardinal Justin Rigali's initial response to the grand jury report released last month. But I think Rigali's words have been under-scrutinized by the media, so I'd like to go over it again. The basic point is that Rigali has not literally contradicted or reversed himself since February 10 by admitting that credibly accused priests were, in fact, serving in the archdiocese. That's not to say he's being unfairly maligned on this point; the sad fact is, he wasn't shooting straight to begin with.

The New York Times reports on Philadelphia:

The archdioceses action followed a damning grand jury report on 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 Five others would have been suspended, the church said in a statement, but three are no longer active and two are no longer active in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.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 announcement was a major embarrassment for Cardinal 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, Cardinal Rigali placed three priests on administrative leave. His statement Tuesday did not explain why he had made his initial assurances nor did it say why the priests had not been suspended earlier.

These events certainly are embarrassing for Rigali. But I think it's important to note that these suspensions, and the tacit admission that the archdiocese has been remiss, do not actually contradict Rigali's "initial assurances." That's because Rigali's words in his brief February 10 statement were very carefully chosen so as not to answer the actual claims of the report. Here's what the report alleged:

Most disheartening to the grand jury was what we learned about the current practice toward accused abusers in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. We would have assumed, by the year 2011, after all the revelations both here and around the world, that the church would not risk its youth by leaving them in the presence of priests subject to substantial evidence of abuse. That is not the case.In fact, we discovered that there have been at least 37 such priests who have been kept in assignments that expose them to children. Ten of these priests have been in place since before 2005 over six years ago. We understand that accusations are not proof; but we just cannot understand the Archdioceses apparent absence of any sense of urgency.On the other hand, in cases where the Archdioceses review board has made a determination, the results have often been even worse than no decision at all. The board takes upon itself the task of deciding whether it finds credible the abuse victims who dare come forward. It is the board, though, that strikes us as incredible.

The report goes on to detail a few of these cases, showing that the evidence offered to the archdiocese and judged not credible was, in the opinion of the grand jury, "substantial" enough to warrant follow-up. They conclude that, in these 37 cases, the archdiocese had received accusations and failed to take them seriously enough.Cardinal Rigali's brief February 10 "response" to the grand jury report (.pdf here) did not actually respond to this claim. He repeated it, but then -- while claiming to "address" it -- answered a different question instead:

There is one assertion in the report that must be addressed immediately. The report states that there remain in ministry archdiocesan priests who have credible allegations of abuse against them. I assure all the faithful that there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them.

I don't think the shift from "credible" to "admitted or established" is an accident. If Rigali had said "credible" in the second case, he would have been lying -- or, at best, speaking with a confidence he could not honestly claim. But he didn't. What he said instead was a variation on "We do not have any priests in service who we know for certain have abused children." Fine. (One would like to think that this could go without saying.) But it says nothing about whether the archdiocese has in fact been negligent in evaluating the credibility of allegations against its priests. No "admitted or established" abusers in ministry is a good start, but -- as the archdiocese's internal investigation evidently concluded -- it's not the same thing as prioritizing children's safety above all else. Rigali knew that; six days later he said this: "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." And they're getting on with it, which is good news. But it doesn't alter the fact that the archdiocese's first response to the report was not an actual denial, but a non-denial denial. A bad move when you're out to win back credibility. If Rigali couldn't say "The allegations of this report are untrue" -- and we know now that he couldn't -- he shouldn't have tried to make it sound like he could. That he did is anything but reassuring.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads