After pope's visit, tough talk from abuse survivors - and Chaput

Members of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests - (from left) Johanna Smith, holding a photo of her First Communion class in North Carolina; Marci Hamilton; and Barbara Dorris - at a rally outside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia´s 17th Street offices calling for more transparency.
Members of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests - (from left) Johanna Smith, holding a photo of her First Communion class in North Carolina; Marci Hamilton; and Barbara Dorris - at a rally outside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's 17th Street offices calling for more transparency. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Pope Francis' speech in Philadelphia harshly rebuking bishops who covered up clergy sex abuse triggered calls Monday for a more forceful response from the city's church hierarchy.

Members of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests - (from left) Johanna Smith, holding a photo of her First Communion class in North Carolina; Marci Hamilton; and Barbara Dorris - at a rally outside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia´s 17th Street offices calling for more transparency. Gallery: After pope's visit, tough talk from abuse survivors - and Chaput

From a small rally outside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's 17th Street offices to legal filings that cited the pontiff's call for openness, victims and their advocates challenged Archbishop Charles J. Chaput to reevaluate the cases of several accused priests and pledge greater openness in how abuse investigations are handled in the future.

But Chaput, whose archdiocese has been one of the hardest-hit in the nation by the scandal, maintained he had done all he could reasonably be expected to do.

"We deeply regret the past. We commit ourselves to a better future," he said, speaking Monday morning at a post-World Meeting of Families news conference. He appeared to quickly grow frustrated with reporters' repeated questions on the subject, adding later:

"In some ways, we should get over this wanting to go back and blame, blame, blame. The church is happy to accept its responsibility, but I'm really quite tired of people making unjust accusations against people who are not to be blamed - and that happens sometimes."

It was a familiar response, said victims' groups, from an archdiocese still reckoning with years of fallout from two scathing grand-jury investigations that found many accused priests still serving in ministry, and the first-in-the-nation conviction in 2012 of a high-ranking church official for covering up abuse.

On one hand, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has removed dozens of accused priests from active ministry since the grand jury reports, revamped its policies on investigating abuse, delivered counseling and other services to victims and their families, and devoted $2.4 million to training its staff.

On the other, the church's lobbying arm in the state, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, has led the fight in Harrisburg against efforts to extend the civil statute of limitations for sex-abuse lawsuits, and the archdiocese and its lawyers have fought against victims seeking compensation in courts.

"The truth is that the survivor community has been asking the church to take several simple steps to protect children and hold perpetrators and enablers accountable for years," said John Salveson, an abuse survivor and businessman who runs the Philadelphia-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. "But the church has refused to take these actions."

Francis called the sex-abuse scandal a "personal shame" in a speech before a roomful of bishops and seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood on Sunday, the last day of his U.S. tour, and vowed that "clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children." His impromptu remarks came just minutes after he met with five survivors - who were abused as children by priests, teachers, or family members - to offer his apologies on behalf of the church.

He expounded on that theme on his flight back to Rome, telling reporters that sexual abuse by a cleric was sacrilege.

"Those who covered this up are guilty," he said. "There are even some bishops who covered this up. It's something terrible."

Together, those statements - Francis' strongest remarks on the church's failures in addressing clergy sex abuse - gave victims hope that the Vatican could widen the scope of its investigations and apply greater accountability to its hierarchy. In June, Francis approved a special tribunal to examine bishops accused of covering up abuse allegations or failing to act.

But while abuse survivors protesting in Philadelphia said they felt gratified by Francis' frankness, they remained skeptical of any practical impact those sentiments might have.

"We've heard promises before," said Barbara Dorris, victim outreach director for the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the nation's most active advocacy group for clergy sex-abuse victims. "It's time to act on those promises. It's time to very publicly discipline those bishops who have failed to protect children in their parishes."

Dorris, who openly described her rape at age 6 by her parish priest in St. Louis, cited three recent cases of clerics from Philadelphia and its suburbs who were either restored to ministry or allowed to quietly resign after allegations of abuse had been lodged against them.

"It's time for Archbishop Chaput to enact the openness the pope has promised," she said.

That call was echoed Monday in what was perhaps the first legal filing in the country to cite Francis' Sunday statements in an argument before a court.

Lawyers representing the family of Sean McIlmail - a Willow Grove man who died of a drug overdose in 2013 while struggling to come to terms with his alleged victimization by a priest - pointed to the pope's calls for transparency in a motion arguing against archdiocesan efforts to block discovery in an ongoing wrongful-death suit in Common Pleas Court.

"The archdiocese continues to fight that goal in court," said Marci Hamilton, one of the McIlmail family's attorneys. "It's sad that 10 years after the first grand jury report, we know little more about the archdiocese response than we knew at that point."

Chaput rejected that characterization of the record of his archdiocese.

"We've gone out of our way to explore in the past in response to the grand juries," he said. "I think the people responsible for the grand jury reports would acknowledge our response as being very positive and thorough. The fact that people want more - what is the more they want that we haven't done?"

He added: "We might fail sometimes. But in terms of sincerity and commitment, we are doing all that can reasonably be done."

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608

@jeremyrroebuck

Inquirer staff writer David O'Reilly contributed to this article.