Sunday, March 06, 2011

"Boston Reborn": In Philadelphia, The "Inferno" Continues

Three weeks after a second grand jury report into the Philadelphia chancery's handling of clergy sex-abuse cases rocked the once-vaunted local church anew -- and saw the first criminal charges of cover-up placed against a US diocesan official -- significant interventions from outside have begun to emerge, indicating the story's wider repercussions on the American Catholic scene.

Having already run a lengthy editorial on the debacle, the front-page of yesterday's New York Times produced a piece that's been weeks in the making, focusing on the grand jury's assertion that as many as 37 priests still minister with full faculties despite "credible" accusations of abuse against them. Given the reach of the Times' wire, the article likewise appeared in multiple papers across the country.

Though the Philadelphia curia initially responded that "that there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them," the three clerics whose contested cases were detailed by the panel were suspended a week after the report's release. The remaining files at issue, all of which the archdiocese previously deemed unfounded, were placed under a spontaneously-crafted "re-examination" led by a chancery-appointed lay civil attorney, with current indications saying that at least a majority of the 34 -- their names still to be revealed -- will be removed.

Quoting a church historian, the Grey Lady said the scenario made for "Boston reborn" -- a rehash of 2002's cataclysmic start of the national crisis -- an impression which has quietly begun to take hold in church circles over the course of these days.

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In what's likely to be the more notable news inside the walls, though, late last week saw a rare breach of the "eleventh commandment" as the US bishops' former lead overseer of the Dallas Charter called the River City developments "very embarrassing" to the wider church.

The comment from Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans came in an interview with a Louisiana radio station, which devoted multiple segments of its morning-drive show to the Philadelphia grand jury.

"There's no excuse for cover-up," the archbishop said. "There's simply no excuse, because we're endangering the lives of people, and of children."

Asked whether officials who failed to protect children by reassigning accused priests should be prosecuted, Aymond agreed.

"We are not, as clergy, above the law," he said. "If we do anything that is wrong, criminally, then we should have to pay for that."


Beyond the statements themselves -- the first public reaction on Philadelphia from an outside prelate -- their import is only magnified by the standing of the comments' source.

One of the most highly-regarded leaders of the Stateside bench, not to mention one of its keenest communicators, the 61 year-old New Orleanean has made the ten-bishop shortlist for the USCCB presidency at the body's last two elections for its top post. Aymond is now on his second delicate assignment at the national level -- after serving as chair of the bench's Committee for Child and Youth Protection from 2005-2008, the archbishop was elected to lead the body's Committee for Divine Worship as it oversees the US church's final steps toward this November's implementation of the new Roman Missal. And in the trenches, even before Pope Benedict sent him from Austin to lead his hometown church's rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, the Crescent City prelate has garnered a reputation as one of the most effective bishops in the country -- and within a polarized conference, is often cited as a key barometer of the bench's "center of gravity" on any given issue.

As a salient aside, the archbishop has several notable connections to the River City church: his mentor was New Orleans' 12th ordinary, Archbishop Francis Schulte, a Philadelphia native who served as a top archdiocesan official under John Cardinal Krol and chose to return after his 2001 retirement; now 84, Schulte is in residence at the home for Philadelphia's elderly priests. Aymond is likewise the episcopal liaison to the Catholic Leadership Institute, based in the Philadelphia suburbs. While CLI's highly-regarded "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds" program for priests has been brought into some 50 dioceses nationwide -- Los Angeles, Boston, Galveston-Houston, Miami, St Louis, Denver and Pittsburgh among them -- and held several well-received sessions for bishops, the institute's charism has received minimal encouragement from its hometown church's leadership.

Above all, the New Orleans interview marked the first on-record indication of something several other prelates have quietly voiced since the report's emergence: a concern that, far beyond Philadelphia, the grand jury's findings risk the credibility of the "zero tolerance" stance the US bishops adopted at Dallas in 2002, a promise on which the nation's 197 dioceses have spent herculean amounts of time, money and effort to sear the church's commitment to young people and survivors alike not just into the ecclesial conscience, but the public mind.

While the NOLA prelate weighed in from his turf, it remains the case that within the Philadelphia media market -- the nation's fourth-largest -- the region's suburban dioceses have taken an unmerited battering from the revelations on the area's dominant chancery, with the intense, oft-sensational flood of media coverage putting the smaller local churches under suspicion among their parishioners, many of whom are unable to distinguish the sizable differences that diocesan boundaries often bring.

In that light, heading into this weekend, the head of the market's second-largest fold -- Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden -- issued a message to his 500,000-member church in the pages of South Jersey's Catholic weekly, the Star Herald:
Sexual abuse of children has again been an issue in our area in recent weeks.

There are no excuses or defense when we are faced with the despicable crime and sin of having children abused.

I have spoken to too many victims and the parents of victims to know that unless I have suffered the horror of abuse, I can never fully understand the pain and the havoc it causes.

I wonder, along with you, what causes a man who professes to be a disciple of Jesus to so betray the trust that has been inherent in the priesthood. I helped to craft the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, approved by the U.S. bishops in 2002. I was spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference in those difficult months. I have a passionate concern that we keep our children safe and secure. I feel strongly that one proven allegation of abuse should mean permanent removal from functioning as a priest, since the damage done to a victim is often continued for a lifetime. To leave a priest in ministry who has been proven to have molested a child is in my mind to perpetuate the harm done.

I have met more than 30 victim survivors from the Diocese of Camden and have apologized to each of them for the harm done to them. But an apology does not fully take away the pain and trauma of abuse. I continually pray that those who have suffered will be healed.

In the Diocese of Camden we continuously act to keep our children safe in any and all situations as far as is humanly possible and we report all abuse accusations to the proper public authorities.

We must never forget that, as the body of Christ, when one member suffers, so do we all.
A Philadelphia native and onetime #3 official of the Vatican's "Congregation for Religious," Galante returned home in 2004 after five turbulent years as coadjutor-bishop of Dallas, where he was dispatched by Rome after the North Texas church was hit with a $121 million court judgment in a 1997 civil trial over an abusive priest who was repeatedly reassigned despite allegations.

Placed in the post that he might quickly succeed Bishop Charles Grahmann, Galante was instead made to wait as the ordinary dug in his heels, making clear that he intended to stay on until he reached the retirement age. Amid a significant rift that split the Big D church, leaving the two prelates unable to remain on speaking terms, the coadjutor eventually asked to be transferred.

Grahmann retired in 2007, months after his 75th birthday.

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At "ground zero," meanwhile, there's seemingly a new development every time one turns around.

For starters, Thursday's feast of the city's canonized daughter, St Katharine Drexel, threatened to provide a jarring contrast with today's state of things, as the archdiocese's former vicar for clergy, Msgr William Lynn, was to face a preliminary hearing on two charges of endangering the welfare of minors. And as if the day and the scenario of the first criminal proceeding against a church official on assertions of cover-up weren't enough, the hearing was oddly slated to be held at Family Court -- a mile north of the city's Criminal Justice Center... and right across the street from the Cathedral-Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul.

Due to an unspecified "scheduling conflict," at the last minute the hearing was moved to March 14th, its venue changed to the main courthouse. Still, it's just one delay among many that have prominently marked these days -- a week's holdup before Lynn was placed on leave from his suburban parish being another... and, for another, revelations that a priest charged with abuse by the second grand jury was still working in a parish in late 2009, nearly two years after he was ordered to leave.

As originally planned, the coming week was to see several dramatic moments, with Cardinal Justin Rigali announcing a public penitential service "for the forgiveness of all sins and for reconciliation with God and in the community," and the embattled prelate intending to hold his first meetings with the scene's toughest crowd of all: a presbyterate that's been described among its own as "livid," "sick and tired" and "even the most loyal ones, thoroughly disgusted" -- if not outright despondent -- in the grand jury's wake.

Against that backdrop, while the Friday night penance is, as of press time, still slated to go forward, as the weekend began, word came that the three priests' gatherings -- all to be held in churches, the first initially set for tomorrow -- had suddenly been pushed back a week, reportedly due to the number of questions sent in advance to the Clergy Office.

Beyond the grand jury, early in the week the archdiocese announced the closing of seven more parochial schools come June, putting its total of school shutterings at over 40 since 2006. On a related note, amid the clamor of these weeks, it is unclear what impact the grand jury's fallout will have on what's now become the second part of a one-two punch for the 1.1 million-member Philadelphia church: a significant reorganization of parishes, the groundwork toward it quietly begun last fall, with a first wave of closings and mergers previously expected to come sometime around mid-year.

While prior projections of the process' outcome estimated a loss of some 30 churches -- with some among the archdiocesan leadership said to be pushing for as many as 60 closings, citing the parishes' need for solvency -- the early lines now portend a considerable uptick in light of the almost-certain overnight banishment from ministry of a score or more clerics with full faculties.

(Of course, only one other Stateside locale has faced the same kind of double tumult: Boston, which endured the throes of global scandal, then closed or merged almost 70 parishes a year after then-Archbishop Séan O'Malley's arrival. And now, citing the reality of an ecclesial model still unsustainable for present circumstances, in recent weeks the Boston church -- nearly half of its current 291 parishes said to be running deficits, with a percentage of Sunday Mass attendance in the teens -- has launched a second round of consolidations.)

On the legal front, meanwhile, the grand jury has sparked a new push to suspend Pennsylvania's ironclad civil statute of limitations, allowing victims to sue regardless of when their abuse occurred. And in the courts, with "many, many more" cases said to be looming, another civil claim against the Philadelphia chancery is expected to be filed tomorrow.

In an explosive disclosure tied to the latter, on Friday the unnamed plaintiff -- who alleges abuse by two priests -- produced a document indicating that survivors who sought to enter the archdiocese's victim assistance program were made to sign a declaration prohibiting church officials from relaying the reported abuse to civil authorities unless the victim in question were still a minor, or the report were to be subpoenaed.

Taken at face value, the chancery form would present a conflict with the Dallas Charter, which -- while mandating a report to the authorities only in cases where the victim is still a minor -- stipulates regardless that "dioceses are to cooperate with public authorities about reporting cases even when the person is no longer a minor" and that "in every instance, dioceses are to advise victims of their right to make a report to public authorities and support this right."

At the helm of it all, though Rigali has maintained his standard, low-profile schedule of parish visits and other commitments -- including two trips to Rome for meetings of the Congregation for Bishops -- since the report's release, the 75 year-old cardinal has yet to speak broadly to his flock in a format beyond a printed statement or YouTube video.

Given the destabilizing nature of the crisis and the fact that, for reasons of age, Rigali's resignation is already on the Pope's desk, perhaps it's only natural that talk of the cardinal's future has swirled heavily in local circles since the report. Still, it is unusual -- and significantly telling -- that an increasing degree of conversation on the topic is being driven from within the Philadelphia presbyterate, a group whose defining traits of fidelity, docility and love of the church have long been famous on the wider church's stage.

Yet while the local chatter is what it is -- and recent events have arguably changed the calculus of the succession to a considerable extent -- a well-placed report from the field this week relayed that a native son currently stationed in more verdant pastures had recently been offered the archbishopric of Philadelphia, only to decline it, saying that "the stress of the situation" in his hometown would've made for "too much" to return to.

And on the ground, with a city cleric confiding that he couldn't "help but wonder how much of the church will still be left when all this is done," the wider local reaction was most clearly crystallized by the editor of the five-county archdiocese's leading suburban newspaper, the Delaware County Times.

A member of Lynn's parish, just prior to the grand jury's release -- and despite being a secular journalist -- Phil Heron was warmly profiled for Catholic Press Month by the archdiocesan weekly, the Catholic Standard and Times.

In the report's wake, however, the Delco editor wrote the following:
If the reaction I got is any indication, it should come as a clarion call to the archdiocese. The faithful are quickly losing faith, not in their beliefs, nor their church, but in archdiocesan leaders and their ability to deal forthrightly with this issue.

One woman made her views crystal clear.

“Please keep up the good work,” she stated in a voice mail. “I am a Catholic. I want to see these people go to jail. I do believe there was a cover-up.”

She lamented that she was in church and her parish priest tried to pass the situation off as “mismanagement.”

She was not buying it. Neither was the former longtime sports official and resident of the county who also has seen and heard enough.

“This whole issue is not about Catholics, St. Joseph’s Parish, you or me,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This is about prosecuting sexual predators and those that covered it up – they should all go to jail if guilty.”
The president of a local development group, identifying himself as a lifelong Catholic and graduate of Cardinal O’Hara [High School] and [Augustinian-run] Villanova [University], maintained that “the Catholic church has taken ‘cover-up’ to levels that only Richard Nixon could appreciate. They have hidden in the shadows long enough.”
Its media response currently being guided by a local public-relations firm, the archdiocese has predominantly declined comment on the story's developments.