Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Has It Changed Enough?": In River City, the Grand Jury Returns

Six years after a Philadelphia grand jury issued the most sweeping indictment of an ecclesiastical culture on these shores with its landmark report on the local handling of clergy sex-abuse cases, the long shadow of the scandals returned to the fore earlier today as a second panel concluded its investigation of more recent files, with another dose of brutal findings -- and, this time, an unprecedented development for the US church.

In a 124-page final summary that makes for painful, at times graphic reading, while the grand jury levied multiple charges against three suspended or laicized priests and a lay teacher for the alleged rape and assault of two boys, aged 10 and 14, in the late 1990s -- unlike the earlier report, a period within Pennsylvania's fairly ironclad statute of limitations on abuse -- the latest panel's signal act was the recommendation of charges against Msgr William Lynn, 60, the River City church's lead official for clergy personnel from 1992 to 2004, when he was transferred to a large suburban parish.

Thought to be the first American chancery staffer to face criminal indictment for his handling of abuse cases, Lynn and the others were taken into custody this morning. According to local reports, the onetime episcopal vicar could face a maximum of 14 years in jail if convicted on two felony counts of endangering the welfare of a minor. Elsewhere, though the jurors were said to "have no doubt" that Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua's "knowing and deliberate actions during his tenure as archbishop also endangered thousands of children" in the archdiocese, the group declined to press charges against the retired prelate, now 87, in light of his age, health and its finding that the evidence at hand "does not establish that the cardinal was aware of all of the information that Msgr Lynn received."

Largely kept in seclusion since his 2003 retirement, Bevilacqua is known to have been in failing condition for several years. A famously robust figure during his active ministry, the experience of testifying a dozen times before the prior grand jury proved itself a blow from which the cardinal never recovered.

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Beyond its treatment of the cases, the panel scrutinized the victim-assistance practices of the 1.1 million-member Philadelphia church, and said it was "frustrated to report that not much has changed" from what the first grand jury observed.

"The procedures implemented by the archdiocese to help victims are in fact designed to help the abusers, and the archdiocese itself," the jury alleged, revealing lapses in the treatment of survivors as recently as 2009 that included lengthy interrogations of victims, the significant presence of archdiocesan attorneys in assistance efforts, and the chancery's access to the victims' mental-health records, obtained through releases the survivors signed.

"The Philadelphia archdiocese has clearly changed since the 2005 grand jury issued its report," the panel said. "The question is: Has it changed enough?"

Given the chancery's spirited reaction to the prior grand jury -- which, in its formal response, diocesan counsel termed "a vile, mean-spirited diatribe against the church and the archdiocese" and "a sword" used "to attack the church and its leaders" -- today's panel said it fully expected "that some may accuse us of anti-Catholic bias for speaking of these painful matters.

"We are not church-haters," they added. "Many of us are church-goers.

"We did not come looking for 'scandal,' but we cannot close our eyes to the powerful evidence we heard.

"We call the church to task, to fix what needs fixing."

As the 2005 barb was widely taken as a slam on the earlier grand jury's lead advocate -- the Jewish District Attorney at the time, Lynne Abraham -- the Philly DA's post has since changed hands to a Catholic, Seth Williams, whose office recently garnered national praise from pro-lifers for its extensive, harrowing January findings into the West Philadelphia medical practice of Dr Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist charged with eight counts of murder on allegedly inducing the birth of seven children, only to kill them with scissors, along with the overdose death of an adult patient. (Last week, the archdiocese announced that it was donating burial space and arranging to inter the remains of the babies, whose corpses were found in Gosnell's office.)

In a statement issued on the report's release, Cardinal Justin Rigali said that "the archdiocese has not yet had the opportunity to review" the findings, leaving him "not able to comment specifically on its contents.

"It is my intention to consider carefully and take very seriously any observations and recommendations of this Grand Jury," Rigali said. "I also welcome the opportunity for ongoing collaboration" with the DA's office "in the vital work of protecting children."

While the incumbent archbishop issued his response in text and on YouTube, the cardinal didn't turn in a live appearance once the report emerged.

As of last week, Rigali's public schedule had him in Rome today for this morning's meeting of the Congregation for Bishops, of which he's the lone resident American member. A former #2 official of the powerful Vatican body that recommends episcopal appointees to the Pope, the 75 year-old prelate normally attends the dicastery's weekly deliberations twice a month.

SVILUPPO: Here, from the DA's prepared remarks announcing the report and its charges....
As a Roman Catholic myself, this is not a happy thing for me to have to do. The criminal acts that occurred here are not representative of my religion. They are the bad acts of individual men. I recognize all the good that the Roman Catholic Church has done and continues to do in the world. But I am sworn to uphold the law, and I will do what is necessary to protect children.

As you know, this is the second time a Philadelphia grand jury has investigated evidence of sexual abuse within the archdiocese. There have been many changes for the better since the original investigation. Victims are receiving counseling and support, and the church is reporting some abusers to law enforcement, something that never happened in the past. This investigation, in fact, began as a result of reports received from the archdiocese. The church is to be commended for these improvements.

As the grand jury investigation reveals, however, further improvements are still needed. The grand jury found that victims have been misled into believing that their statements to archdiocese representatives are confidential, that victims have been pressed to sign releases of their psychiatric and other records, and that investigations by church employees have been conducted in a manner that was not evenhanded. There must be more separation between the things the church does in the name of helping victims and the things the church does in an effort to protect itself from financial liability and ill repute.

Even more troubling, the grand jury believed that many priests – dozens of them – have remained in ministry despite solid, credible allegations of abuse. It is time for the church to remove all credibly accused priests from ministry, and to put protection of children ahead of protection from scandal.

Above all, victims of sexual abuse need to know that they can and should contact law enforcement directly. You do not need to go through the archdiocese first. We will conduct our own, independent investigation, regardless of the church’s decision about how to handle the case....

A word about Monsignor Lynn, the former Secretary of Clergy for the archdiocese who was not himself an abuser but is being charged today for knowingly endangering the children he was supposed to defend. The previous grand jury concluded that prosecution of high-level archdiocese officials would be inappropriate on the evidence then available. The primary problem was the statute of limitations. In addition, in the absence of evidence that the actions of these officials led to the abuse of any juveniles who could be identified at that time, it would be difficult to meet our statutory burden of proving that the officials had a supervisory role in relation to the victims.

This time, however, we have far more specific evidence, within the statute of limitations, directly linking Monsignor Lynn’s actions to the abuse of two new victims. He had all the information he needed to protect them. Instead, he lied to parishioners and went out of his way to put known abusers into contact with adolescents, resulting in assaults against at least two more young boys. Let this be a clarion call. This behavior will not be tolerated.

I love my church but I detest the criminal behavior of priests who abuse or allow the abuse of children. I know ultimately they will be judged by higher authority. For now, it is my responsibility as the elected District Attorney, of all the citizens of Philadelphia, to hold them accountable.