The sex abuse scandal roiling the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where 21 priests have been suspended after an investigator found credible abuse accusations against them, has stunned many Catholics across the country, and raises questions whether the reporting system that the American bishops implemented in 2002 are adequate to safeguard victims. 

“We’re as shocked, angry and stunned as anyone else,” Teresa M. Kettelkamp, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, told Our Sunday Visitor. 

She said the Philadelphia scandal “clouds all the good work that has been done,” and said her staff and others who work with abuse victims will be scrutinizing the Philadelphia case to determine where the system failed. 

Kettlekamp’s office was charged in 2002 with helping dioceses implement child safety programs, develop auditing mechanisms and prepare public annual reports on their compliance with the bishops’ newly adopted Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People

“The Charter is a good document,” Kettelkamp said, “but its success depends on Church leaders adhering to the letter and the spirit of the document.” 

“If there are changes that need to be made, they will be made,” she said. 

‘More pain’ 

In the Philadelphia archdiocese, Catholics are reeling from the news, which stemmed from a grand jury report alleging that 37 priests remained in ministry despite allegations against them of “substantial evidence of abuse.” 

Only seven of the 21 suspended priests’ cases made it to the archdiocese’s review board, which has the task of investigating abuse complaints. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the board did not recommend their removal because it did not have enough evidence at the time. The board also urged Church leaders “a number of times” to suspend accused priests during investigations, but their recommendations were ignored. 

“Everywhere you look, it’s more pain, more hurt, more questions, more brokenness, more everything horrible you can imagine,” said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia native who writes Whispers in the Loggia, a popular Catholic blog on Church matters. He has spoken with several demoralized priests and lay faithful in the archdiocese. 

The grand jury said Msgr. William J. Lynn, the archdiocese’s secretary of clergy, who was supposed to investigate abuse allegations, allowed accused priests to remain in posts that gave them access to children. Msgr. Lynn has been criminally charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of minors, signaling a new willingness by law enforcement authorities to investigate high-ranking Church officials. Three other priests and a Catholic-school teacher in the archdiocese have been charged with sexually assaulting young boys. 

The probe followed a 2005 grand jury investigation that found credible abuse accusations against 63 priests and accused the archdiocese of an “immoral coverup.” Ten of the recently suspended priests were named in the earlier report, leading the new grand jurors to question the archdiocese’s “apparent absence of any sense of urgency.” 

“If you’ve worked with victim survivors, as I have, it breaks your heart. It devastates you,” said Palmo, adding that the grand jury report and the archdiocese’s subsequent decision on March 8 to place 21 accused priests on administrative leave — Palmo said it was the largest single suspension of clergy in the history of the American Church — “blindsided” many in Philadelphia. 

“In terms of the lay faithful, and the rank-and-file priests, nobody had any idea this was coming, and that has compounded the reaction,” Palmo said. 

‘Fallen short’ 

Cardinal Justin Rigali, a former Vatican curial official who became archbishop of Philadelphia in 2004, first issued a statement after last month’s grand jury report that there were no active priests with “an admitted or established allegation” of sexual abuse against them. 

However, the archbishop subsequently suspended three accused priests, retained the services of a victim-services consultant and hired Gina M. Smith, a Philadelphia attorney and former prosecutor, to review the accused priests’ files. Her initial probe led to the 21 suspensions. More suspensions, and even criminal charges, are possible. 

Cardinal Rigali discussed the suspensions in his Ash Wednesday homily, and renewed the archdiocese’s commitment to protect children. 

“I personally renew my deep sorrow for the victims of sexual abuse in the community of the Church, and others, including so many faithful priests, who suffer as a result of this great evil and crime,” Cardinal Rigali said. 

While Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams issued a statement saying the cardinal’s actions were “commendable” and “unprecedented,” and reflected his “concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of those in his care,” others said the archbishop’s words and recent actions rang hollow. 

“I know many faithful Catholics who simply cannot believe it. They’re just completely bewildered by this,” said Leonard Norman Primiano, chairman of the religious studies department at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa. 

“If Cardinal Rigali didn’t know this information beforehand, why didn’t he know it?” Primiano said. 

In a prepared statement, Cardinal Rigali said: “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.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

'Deeply Disturbed' (sidebar)

The scandal prompted Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, to tell reporters this month that he was “deeply disturbed,” and that he considered the latest chapter in the sex abuse crisis to be “so disappointing to all of us, to the whole Church.” 

Meanwhile, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, issued a statement warning observers not to “overstate” the problem, arguing that neither the archdiocese nor media outlets have offered a concise tally of the accused priests and the nature of the accusations. 

“The confusion is complicated because the public assumes that not only are all of these priests guilty, but that they are all guilty of a serious offense,” Donohue wrote.