Saturday, February 6, 2016

Why accused priests were finally suspended

The church failed to do the right thing until it had to.

Protesters gathered outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul before the Ash Wednesday Mass there this week.
Protesters gathered outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul before the Ash Wednesday Mass there this week. MATT ROURKE / Associated Press

This week, Cardinal Justin Rigali suspended 21 priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese who have been accused of sexual abuse or other improper behavior involving children. The accusations against these priests had been known to the archdiocese under Rigali and his predecessor, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, for years and in some cases decades.

Since the first grand jury report on sexual abuse in the archdiocese, in 2005, Rigali has repeatedly assured his flock that there were no priests in active service "known" to have abused children. He has offered "heartfelt" apologies to victims. And he has touted various programs and strategies to deal with the problem. But all the while, he left 21 priests in active service whom he now considers so dangerous to children as to warrant their immediate suspension.

So why were the priests suspended - and why now?

First, let's look at why not. Rigali did not suspend these priests in the interests of doing the right thing, protecting children, stemming a decline in church attendance and donations, or reacting to credible accusations. Any of those motives would have prompted the suspensions years ago.

The truth is that the suspensions occurred because of last month's grand jury report, which exposed the fact that the priests were in active service and posing a danger to children. No second grand jury report, no suspensions.

A second, related reason for the suspensions was the recent arrest of Msgr. William Lynn. This marked the first time that a Catholic Church supervisor in the United States was arrested on charges of sheltering priest abusers by moving them to other, unsuspecting parishes and schools, thereby giving them access to new victims. I'm betting Rigali got a look at the television footage of Lynn's "perp walk" and wondered how it would feel to be in his shoes.

For decades, Catholic children have been raped and their priest rapists have been protected because our law enforcement agencies, legislators, and media failed miserably to expose these crimes and take steps to stop them. Now that they're waking up and getting involved, things are finally changing.

Authorities were able to arrest Lynn because of changes made to the criminal statutes as a result of the first grand jury report. Legislation introduced in Harrisburg last week would lift the statue of limitations on sexual abuse of children for two years, giving more victims a shot at justice. If this legislation is passed, I believe we will see many more priests dismissed from parishes across Pennsylvania, because like those in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, they will have been exposed to the light of day.

The bishops running Pennsylvania's other dioceses already know who the predators are, just as church officials in Philadelphia have known for years. But until legislators pass laws and prosecutors conduct investigations in other parts of the state, these predators will remain hidden and protected.

Those who care about the safety of children will demand that the legislature take action. If we rely instead on the promises of a cardinal, God help us and our children.


John Salveson is president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. He can be reached at

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