Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In Grand Jury's Wake, "We Have Fallen Short"

Over the six days since a second Philadelphia grand jury released a damning report that charged four priests and alleged ongoing mismanagement of clergy sex-abuse cases by the city’s scandal-rocked archdiocese, the fallout has been viewed as a “nightmare,” a “meltdown” and “a shambles” just within the church’s ranks.

Now, though, a concerted clean-up effort has begun... and the crisis’ next stage could well end up becoming something more still.

A bloodbath.

Under the glare of a fury toward the church unparalleled in this heavily-Catholic region's living memory, Cardinal Justin Rigali has set the stage for an occurrence without precedent over the decade since revelations of abuse and cover-up began erupting in earnest on these shores. Earlier today, the Philadelphia prelate ordered an "immediate re-examination" of accusations against "as many as 37" priests who, according to the grand jury, have remained in public ministry into the present despite reports which its investigation deemed “substantial” after the archdiocese ruled them unsubstantiated.

If even a fraction of the allegations to be reinspected are either admitted by the accused or newly judged to be “established” -- the archdiocese’s consistent standard, in line with the Stateside church’s particular law in force since 2002 -- the resulting mass suspension would mark, by far, the largest single banishment of priests on abuse allegations in the long trail of the most seismic scandal ever to shake the American church.

While the names of 34 of the clerics under fresh scrutiny have not been made public, and no move to curtail the mens’ faculties has yet emerged, the three accused but unsanctioned priests whose identities were revealed in contested cases examined by the grand jury were immediately suspended pending further review of the claims against them. (In one of the latter cases, the grand jury said that a victim who reported abuse by one of the three went on to commit suicide less than a year after he learned that the allegation was deemed unfounded, despite substantiating evidence.)

In his initial response to the report, the cardinal said last week that, although “the report states that there remain in ministry archdiocesan priests who have credible allegations of abuse against them,” he sought to “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.” Addressing Rigali’s statement in interviews in the report’s wake, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams alleged that the archdiocese failed to deem as “credible” any allegation where the reported abuse took place beyond the statute of limitations.

At the cardinal’s direction, the new review is to be undertaken by Gina Maisto Smith -- a former city prosecutor, now in private practice, who specialized in winning rape convictions during her time in the DA’s office. Likewise recruited to "assist the archdiocese in its communications" with prosecutors and the curia's broader response to the report, Smith is a member of the board of the archdiocese’s Catholic Social Services.

The chancery announcement on the new process conspicuously made no mention of the local church’s lay review board, whose members were heavily criticized by the grand jury for their response to the contested allegations.

Today’s release ended a four-day message blackout from the archdiocese on the grand jury’s findings. Though Rigali has now issued four statements since the report’s emergence, the cardinal’s lone visual appearances over the last week have come in the form of two videos posted on YouTube.

In his comments today, the head of the 1.1 million-member church said that “many people of faith and in the community at large think that the archdiocese does not understand the gravity of child sexual abuse. We do. The task before us now is to recognize where we have fallen short and to let our actions speak to our resolve."

* * *
With three priests and a lay teacher arraigned on abuse charges, the archdiocese’s former head of clergy personnel, Msgr William Lynn, now become the first US church official criminally indicted on claims of a cover-up, and a wide-ranging civil lawsuit alleging an ecclesial conspiracy filed on Monday by an unnamed 28 year-old survivor, local reaction to the news has run sizably more heated than it was in the days of 2005’s first grand jury report, which prominently accused the archdiocese of a lengthy, systematic pattern of protecting abusive clerics, but recommended no charges, citing expired statutes of limitations.

Reflecting the tenor of the amped-up public outcry -- one that, among other things, has seen a columnist muse that the cardinal “should declare moral bankruptcy,” the administration blasted as “more than a disgrace” and no less than the New York Times lamenting “more shame” for the church in a prominent editorial, all while pockets of the famously-cohesive Philadelphia presbyterate have quietly gone restive and reports of lower attendance at last weekend’s Masses have emerged from several spots -- an astonishing criticism of the archdiocese was even aired in the lead editorial of its stringently-supervised weekly, the Catholic Standard and Times, set to publish tomorrow.

After noting that “the archdiocese’s child protection efforts have educated thousands of church workers, volunteers and the children they serve,” the chancery's own newspaper said that “it’s also clear the programs have fallen short of the stated goals of doing every possible to safeguard young people within the Catholic church.”

“New measures featuring greater transparency must emerge,” the unsigned leader read. “But the larger goal of restoring confidence in Catholics — trust that archdiocesan officials really are working transparently and sincerely for the protection of children and genuine care of victims — remains the work of the coming weeks.”

While Lynn is the lone chancery veteran to have been charged to date on mishandling cases, indications are that Williams’ office is continuing its investigations, and that further indictments could well be in the offing.

In a scenario one of his confreres described as “chilling,” the well-liked former vicar for clergy -- still listed as pastor of his suburban parish, albeit now reportedly placed on leave -- was said to have spent 12 hours in jail until ten percent of his combined $50,000 bail was posted by his brother.

* * *
Amid reports from the trenches that at least several archdiocesan clerics sought to cast a share of blame on the media and the prosecutors in their first responses to the developments last weekend, it is notable that the chancery’s newfound willingness to admit “falling short” still fell short of including any discernible word of apology -- to victim-survivors and their families above all, but likewise to a wider church and community where the administration’s efforts at containing the crisis have come to be viewed with a diminishing sense of credibility, on top of drawing consistently dwindling attention in local news coverage.

In a recent comment unrelated to the Philadelphia crisis, though, the church’s most prominent American leader of the moment offered a nugget of public counsel as worth noting as it was likely unwitting.

As the church on these shores seeks to rebuild its battered standing in the long shadow of the scandals, “what we have to do, and the bishops have to lead it, is one big fat mea culpa,” Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the US bishops, told the National Catholic Reporter.

“We can’t get tired of that, and we have to mean it.”

And, well, as the River City church undergoes the most volatile moment it's known since the destabilizing, years-long "Hogan Schism" of the 1820s, leave it to a historian to lay out the future's best bet.

SVILUPPO: Judging that the Philadelphia church's protocols prior to the most recent grand jury are "far from zero tolerance" on abusers, Thursday's editorial in the city's leading paper demanded "no more excuses" from the archdiocese. Meanwhile, the editor of the Philly fold's most-prominent suburban paper echoed the thought, saying early Thursday that "the faithful have had enough."