The Truth About the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Child Sex Abuse by Its Priests, and Its Latest Missteps

Posted in: Criminal Law

The most developed record in the country of a cover-up of child sex abuse by an entire Roman Catholic diocese now exists in Philadelphia.  Why?  Because recent Philadelphia prosecutors have proactively sought the truth, even when it was far from flattering to the diocese’s hierarchy.  For an elected official, that takes guts.  Fortunately, both former District Attorney Lynne Abraham and current District Attorney Seth Williams have plenty of guts.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese is being unmasked, day by day, as an institution that operated in such a way as to endanger children.  The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting Msgr. William Lynn for his integral role in suppressing the identities of priest perpetrators.  The policies that Lynn implemented have now been put under the harsh glare of the public spotlight, for the first criminal trial of a member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy is now underway.  Each and every day of the trial—which already has lasted six weeks, and is expected to last up to three months—the prosecution further peels back the diocese’s veneer, exposing it as a truly horrific place for children.  Recently, it has also added to its profile of callousness by re-victimizing the victims it had a hand in creating.

This trial is only going forward because of former D.A. Abraham’s steely determination to know the truth of what happened in Philadelphia.  A decade ago, she instituted the first grand jury investigation of the Archdiocese, knowing in all likelihood that she might not find victims whose cases she could prosecute, because Pennsylvania statutes of limitations regarding child sex abuse were so short.  But once they got the go-ahead, Abraham’s dogged and brilliant attorneys, including Charlie Gallagher and Mariana Sorenson, pursued the truth in just the way we want our public servants to do so: They cared about the truth first, and the political fallout second.

Compare Abraham and her Office to the many District Attorneys and their Offices, across the country, who have refused, when asked, to investigate dioceses, saying that they can’t do anything until a victim comes forward whose claims fall within the statute of limitations.  Abraham’s work reveals those excuses as being more political than prosecutorial.

The Findings of the 2005 Grand Jury Investigation Report

In Philadelphia, when Abraham was D.A., a 2005 Grand Jury Investigation Report laid out, in over 400 pages of text, the mechanics of the Archdiocesan cover-up, and who the players were that made the cover-up work, including the bishops; Monsignor Lynn, who is now on trial; and the many priest-perpetrators, not to mention the non-perpetrator priests who had to have known what was going on, but nevertheless did nothing.

The 2005 Report concluded that the laws of Pennsylvania were, at the time, inadequate, and needed to change in order to protect children.  The state legislature followed the recommendations on criminal law.  However, it ignored the suggestion of creating a statute-of-limitations window for all those victims whose statutes of limitations had expired.  Why did it ignore this chance to see justice done?  Again, the answer is politics.

Abraham’s successor has shown the value of her initial investigation.  The 2005 Grand Jury Report, despite the fact that it did not open the door to any possible future prosecutions, did at least plant the seeds that led the next and current District Attorney, Seth Williams, to learn about clergy child-sexual-abuse victims whose claims still fell within the statute of limitations.  Williams’s Office, showing admirable and determined resolve, convened another grand jury, wrote a compelling report on that grand jury’s findings, released in 2011, and is now pursuing the first-ever prosecution of a man in the church hierarchy itself for his participation in the cover-up of clergy child sex abuse.  The facts introduced in the courtroom in Philadelphia where the cases are being tried are in the papers virtually every day.

Jurors are hearing evidence of the hierarchy’s pressuring nuns and priests to keep silent if they learned about a child abuser or pornographer, and evidence about the hierarchy’s sending pedophile priests to “treatment centers” and then putting them back in active ministry, even when the diagnosis the priest had received was spine-chilling.

Although the importance of this trial is plain to see, there is one element that likely is escaping the casual observer:  There are only two victims in this trial whose claims fit within the statute of limitations, but the cover-up obviously affected many more victims than those two.  Indeed, Judge Teresa Sarmina permitted evidence to be introduced regarding 22 other victims, even though all of those victims’ claims are beyond the statute of limitations.

That is a tragedy.  To recap, there are 22 known victims whose evidence is relevant and sufficient enough to be presented by the prosecutor to a jury in a criminal trial proving the clergy child-sex-abuse cover-up, but the law of Pennsylvania is keeping those 22 victims from filing their own criminal charges against their abusers and the institution that created the conditions for their misery.

At least the public is learning, in digestible bits and pieces (rather than the 600 pages of grand jury reports that have already been published), the truth, which is that the Archdiocese has been callous toward children and victims, unerringly protecting its own.

This is a fresh hell for the 22 victims and their families and friends, but they have been willing to endure it, because they too understand that the cold arrogance of the Archdiocese demands public justice.

The Archdiocese’s Handling of Its Private Investigation and How It Has Re-Victimized the Victims

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese’s intransigent insensitivity has been further apparent in its handling of its own, separate investigation, which it initiated.  After the 2011 Grand Jury Investigation Report documented the fact that the Philadelphia Archdiocese had not changed its ways following the 2005 Report, the bishops (first Cardinal Justin Rigali, and now Archbishop Charles Chaput) suspended 27 priests in February 2011, and then hired an outside consultant to investigate the claims.  The consultant they hired was an ex-prosecutor, Gina Maisto Smith, who is now in private practice at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia.  The comparison of her investigation to that of the real prosecutors is telling.

There were actually more priests suspended before the investigation was underway, but the Archdiocese washed its hands of any priests who were with religious orders, on the theory that those priests were not their problem (even though no priest ever operates in a diocese without permission of the diocese).

Smith supposedly investigated all claims within those parameters, and was charged with making recommendations to the Archdiocesan Review Board.  The Board, in turn, made recommendations to Archbishop Chaput.  Early last week, Chaput floated to the press the news that he would be making a momentous announcement about the fate of the suspended priests on Friday, May 11.  He gathered all diocesan priests at a meeting at Archbishop O’Hara High School.  All indications were that this chapter, at least, was going to be closed.

As you can imagine, the survivors who were abused by the men on the list were under extraordinary stress as they waited.  The investigation has taken an unconscionable amount of time—over a year.  Once Chaput had leaked the plan for the Friday announcement regarding the suspended priests to the press, their stress levels understandably and predictably went through the roof.  That means that their families and friends surely suffered along with them, as they waited.

Finally, Friday the 11th arrived.  The survivors steeled themselves for whatever was going to happen.  The press conference was scheduled for the afternoon.

What did happen?  Sadly, the answer is, classic re-victimization.  Chaput did not announce the fates of all of the suspended priests, as he had implied that he would.  Instead, he only mentioned a “final decision” as to a total of nine priests—five to be permanently removed (somehow), three to be returned to ministry, and one who is deceased.  His announcement still leaves the cases relating to 18 other priests unresolved.

For the victims whose perpetrators went unnamed by Chaput, and who are still wondering about their abusers’ fates, the whole week was an unnecessary torture.

Just to be sure that the victims were kept in their place, Chaput also put the priests into categories: Four of the five were removed for what the Archdiocese deemed “boundary” or “behavioral” problems, and only one—Rev. John Reardon—for sexual abuse of a minor.  Chaput declined to go into more specifics.

The Archdiocese’s wondrous investigation apparently concluded that Msgr. Francis Feret, Rev. George Cadwallader, Rev. Robert Povish, and the Rev. Thomas Rooney were only guilty of “boundary or behavioral violations.”

So Chaput only specified the fates of a fraction of the priests, and then turned the announcement into a farce, when he distinguished between real abuse and “boundary violations.”  Exactly where is the term “boundary violation” in the criminal code?  Such a concept doesn’t exist.

But some things here are very real:  There are real sexual assault victims, alleging real rapes, behind the removal of the priests whom Chaput deemed to have merely violated “boundaries.”

Here is the truth Chaput held back: One of Feret’s victims reported to the District Attorney’s Office, long before last Friday, that he was orally and anally raped by Feret.  The Smith team then had a cursory phone conversation with that victim.  This survivor received a call last week, letting him know that Feret would be discussed on Friday the 11th. So he waited, along with his family—and all the other survivors and their families—to learn whether the investigation had found him credible and whether the Archdiocese would do the right thing, and get rid of Feret.

On Friday the 11th, this person, a victim of rape, couldn’t believe his ears: He heard Chaput tell the press and the public that Feret was only guilty (in their kangaroo court) of “boundary violations.”  Rape is one heck of a boundary violation, and this victim was rightfully distraught when it appeared that his claims had been treated as not credible, and as trivial.  No one in the Archdiocese prepared him for this public betrayal of his experiences.

The pain inflicted by the idiocy of using the phrase “boundary violation” for child rape is impossible to quantify, and for the survivor, it is devastating.  This survivor gnawed away at this fresh insult all weekend and then, on Tuesday morning, the Archdiocese finally called him.  In his own words, here is what he was told and how he felt:

“Friday’s announcement regarding Feret was specific to another victim. [The Archdiocesan representative] said that law enforcement hasn’t made a finding regarding my case, that when they do, only then will the archdiocese do their own investigation regarding my case.  I am now more confused and distraught than ever. I have no idea what the heck this means?  It’s like I’m in limbo, like I am being victimized all over again.”

Let’s recap:  The victim was told that there would be an announcement, which surely means that they knew full well about his report.  Even with that knowledge, Chaput announced on Friday the 11th, amidst much self-congratulation, that Feret was being removed from ministry permanently for “boundary violations,” even as Chaput remained mute about the fact that Feret was also accused of far more serious crimes, crimes of rape.  This victim—this survivor—was then told that there would be an announcement, but not that his report would be publicly ignored this time around.

Another survivor who heard of the impending announcement also was anxious upon learning that the Archdiocese was finally acting to move his perpetrator in or out of ministry.  On Friday, his perpetrator was not mentioned by Chaput.  Here is a communication that the survivor sent me early the this week, which I reprint with his permission:

“I wanted to get right back to you but after last week, I became even more dispossessed after watching the news that only a few priests were dealt with so far. After a long bender, I am just getting myself together. . . . Things have gotten out of hand and if this can’t be taken care of here, then I may need to go to the hospital and take care of this once and for all.”

Did Chaput and his hierarchical advisors not know that what he was doing would hurt victims?  Or do they have some kind of congenital hardness of heart?  And how could the former prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith let this happen?  The irony here is that while survivors were deflated and depressed, she was at the press conference publicly thanking her kids and her mother, as though the event was the Academy Awards.

There seems to be no sensitivity training on Earth that can help the dioceses do what is morally and mercifully correct, and what to anyone outside of the system would be the obvious and right thing to do.

When the cruelty of holding out hope of a full-scale announcement is added to all the other cruelties these victims have endured, it is apparent that the Archdiocese simply cannot now or ever deliver what the prosecutors can—truth and justice, tested in the crucible of the law, uncloaked in the slimy rhetoric of self-protection.  How many mores times is Chaput going to get the victims’ hopes up and then parse out as little information as possible?  My guess is that this charade will go on as long as he feels the impulse to nullify the truth that is emerging from the trial.  It is always about public relations with Chaput.  That is his gift.

Moreover, the Archdiocese’s “investigation” cannot lead to the remedy that justice requires:  It cannot put these men in jail, where they belong.  Because no one in the institution went to the authorities when they learned of the abuse, the best the Archdiocese can now do, is to persuade the perpetrators to agree to a “life of prayer and penance,” essentially a semi-monastic existence in a church-run facility (under the effective and watchful eyes of the hierarchy, sarcasm very much intended) or to abandon the collar, be “laicized” and blend into the general population, terrifyingly free to search for more children to abuse.  Some prefer Florida, some the Jersey Shore.  Neither option should offer much comfort to parents intent on protecting their children.

If the Archdiocese had not covered up the abuse of so many priests, and if it had pursued justice for the victims when it learned of the abuse, then no victim would be awaiting the hollow promise of an investigation that cannot put these men in jail or truly protect children.  Because the statutes of limitations have passed, for most victims, the best that will happen is that the man who is the perpetrator is locked into a monastery, preferably one on the moon.  The men who don’t choose that option can follow the path of so many of the church’s predators: simply take off the collar and set up house in another state, staying on the lookout for more children to rape or, in the language of the hierarchy, engage in “boundary violations.”

At the very least, though, the stalwart Philadelphia District Attorneys have paved the way for Monsignor Lynn to go to prison for his integral role in making pedophile priests even more dangerous to children than they are already were.  And that precedent will pave the way for more states to eliminate the legal barriers that shift criminal investigations to private organizations, which in turn lack the will to do what is demanded by simple common decency.