Reassessment of processes, new hires, begin to address concerns in Philadelphia grand jury report

By Matthew Gambino

PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 16 – A new grand jury report has reopened for Catholics the raw wound of sexual abuse of children by clergy and personnel in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams released the report by a grand jury investigating alleged abuse during a press conference Feb. 10.{{more}}

While a similar 2005 report detailed hundreds of cases of sexual abuse of children by dozens of clergy over many decades, the new report brings criminal indictments for the first time.

Charged with rape, assault and other felonies related to minors, as recommended by the grand jury, are former archdiocesan priest Edward V. Avery, 68, of Haverford; Father Charles Engelhardt, 64, of Wyndmoor and a priest Oblate of St. Francis de Sales; an archdiocesan priest, Father James J. Brennan, 47, of Linfield; and former lay teacher, Bernard Shero, 48, of Bristol.

Msgr. William J. Lynn, 60, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown, was charged on two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The charges stem, according to the report, from Msgr. Lynn’s conduct as archdiocesan vicar for clergy from 1992 to 2004. In that role, he was responsible for recommending the assignment of priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He is believed to be the only high ranking diocesan official indicted under a criminal statute in the United States for charges related to the sexual abuse scandal that came to light in 2002.

A preliminary hearing for the charges will be held March 7. No trial date has been set.

Cardinal Justin Rigali addressed the issue of sexual abuse of children squarely in a statement Wednesday, Feb. 16, calling it a crime and “always wrong and always evil.”

Many people of faith and in the community at large think that the Archdiocese does not understand the gravity of child sexual abuse,” he said. “We do.

“The task before us now is to recognize where we have fallen short and to let our actions speak to our resolve.”

The Cardinal outlined new actions the Archdiocese is taking in response to the grand jury report.

The cases of 37 priests said by the grand jury to have credible allegations of child sexual abuse will be reexamined immediately. The process will be led by a lawyer and former Philadelphia District Attorney Gina Maisto Smith. She will personally review all cases of accused priests in active ministry and recommend to Cardinal Rigali procedural changes in response to the report.

Three archdiocesan priests mentioned in the report, Fathers Joseph L. DiGregorio, Joseph J. Gallagher and Stephen B. Perzan, have been placed on leave and they may not exercise their priestly ministry pending the second review of their cases.

The issue of sexual abuse of minors took a new turn Monday, Feb. 14, as Cardinals Rigali and Anthony Bevilacqua, retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, were named in a lawsuit by a 28-year-old unnamed man.

The suit concerns the assignments of two priests who allegedly abused the plaintiff when he was a boy in the early 1990s. Both former archdiocesan priest Martin Satchell and Augustinian priest Richard Cochrane have since been laicized.

The suit also takes to task the Archdiocese’s victims assistance program, which allegedly refused to help the victim when he would not sign a waiver authorizing the release of his information to authorities.

Wednesday’s announcement by Cardinal Rigali follows new three initiatives he announced Feb. 11.

First, the Archdiocese has rehired former victim advocate for Pennsylvania Mary Achilles to advise Cardinal Rigali on how to address the needs of victims of sexual abuse and to review the observations and recommendations of the grand jury report. Achilles served in a similar capacity for the Archdiocese from 2006 to 2008.

Second, a new Delegate for Investigations position has been created. The person, when hired, will continue the practice of forwarding every allegation of abuse as soon as it is received to the appropriate civil authority. Regardless of whether the authority investigates the claim, the delegate will lead the Archdiocese’s investigation of the allegation from the time it is received until the Archdiocesan Review Board presents its recommendation on the credibility of the allegation to Cardinal Rigali.

Third, Joseph A. Cronin Jr. has been hired as the Clergy Support Associate to help ensure priests in active ministry comply with the Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries, a code of conduct for clergy developed in 2003.

Last weekend Cardinal Rigali acknowledged in a letter to all the faithful the painful, emotional fallout the report and its indictments have left in the Archdiocese.

“The release of the Philadelphia grand jury report … brings great sadness and distress to every Catholic, to every person,” the Cardinal said. “Once again the issue of the sexual abuse of minors is raised, as well as the role of the Church and her leaders in addressing this abuse. As Catholics we are hurt and confused, and perhaps even quite angry and feeling betrayed.”

The Cardinal acknowledged the suffering of victims of abuse and their families, as well as the suffering of faithful priests. He encouraged Catholics to show victims love and compassion, plus support and prayers for priests.

He called the report’s release “a moment for renewed faith.”

“I encourage you to join me as we turn together to Jesus,” the Cardinal concluded. “He sustains us. He sustains the whole Church. His cross and resurrection conquer all sin and give us faith and hope, which must remain strong in our hearts as we vigorously commit ourselves anew to do everything possible for the protection of all children and for the prevention of any abuse in the future.”

Cardinal Rigali also delivered his remarks as a video message prepared for and aired on many local television and radio stations over the weekend.

District Attorney Williams noted that since the 2005 grand jury report, positive changes have resulted in the Archdiocese’s procedures for handling allegations of abuse and its impact upon victims.

“Victims are receiving counseling and support, and the Church is reporting some abusers to law enforcement, something that never happened in the past,” he said. “This investigation, in fact, began as a result of reports received from the Archdiocese. “

Williams commended the Archdiocese for these improvements, but emphasized more needs to be done regarding concerns of victims’ confidentiality and the nature of abuse allegations against priests.

At his press conference Williams admitted that as a practicing Catholic, presenting the grand jury’s findings caused him discomfort.

“This isn’t a witch hunt into the Catholic Church,” said Williams, a member of St. Cyprian Parish in West Philadelphia. “The criminal acts that occurred here are not representative of my religion. They are the bad acts of inspanidual men.

“I recognize all the good that the Roman Catholic Church has done and continues to do in the world. But I am sworn to uphold the law, and I will do what is necessary to protect children.”

The grand jury’s charges stem from cases in recent years. The report alleges Avery joined Shero and Father Engelhardt in the abuse of a 10-year-old boy from approximately 1998 to 2000. The Archdiocese received an allegation concerning Father Engelhardt in 2009 and reported it to the Philadelphia district attorney. His ministry was restricted Feb. 10, 2011.

The Archdiocese received a report concerning then-Father Avery that alleged he had inappropriate contact with a minor as far back as 1992. It limited his ministry to chaplain at Nazareth Hospital in Philadelphia from 1993 to 2003. After the Archdiocese substantiated allegations of sexual abuse against him and removed him from ministry in 2003, he was laicized in 2006.

New allegations against him were received in 2007 and 2009, which were forwarded to the district attorneys of Delaware County and Philadelphia, respectively.

The charges against Father Brennan, who has been prohibited from performing the duties of a priest or presenting himself as a priest since 2006, stem from an allegation of abuse concerning a 14-year-old boy in 1996, according to the report. The allegation was received by the Archdiocese in 2006 and reported to the DA’s office at that time.