By John Gillespie
Special to The CS&T

A week ago Friday former child sexual abuse prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith was in Virginia, lecturing to more than 200 college and university administrators at the National Forum on Campus Sexual Misconduct.

On Tuesday she said goodbye to her students in her trial advocacy class at Penn Law School. On Thursday she flew to Pittsburgh to conduct a two-day seminar for Pennsylvania trial judges on the handling of death penalty cases. On Friday she was back in Philadelphia.

In between, Smith, a partner with the Ballard Spahr law firm and mother of five, still found time for her main job these days — leading the investigation into the latest chapter of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s clergy sex abuse scandal. {{more}}

On her recommendation, Cardinal Justin Rigali announced March 8 that 21 priests were placed on administrative leave from active ministry pending further investigation. They were among 37 priests mentioned in the latest Philadelphia grand jury report on clergy sex abuse. Smith calls the suspensions “unprecedented.”

Reared in the Church, educated in its schools, sensitive to its history and culture, Smith believes her Catholicism adds credibility to her role, and not, as some critics charge, a barrier.

“My Catholicism gives me a voice that is more likely to be heard and accepted in making recommendations,” she says. “At the same time, I bring to the task an extensive background and experience in child sex abuse.”

That experience includes hundreds of convictions in child abuse cases over a period of 20 years in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. Many of those verdicts were won with the help of a team of investigators and child abuse experts Smith helped mentor and who have joined her and four lawyers from Ballard Spahr in her probe.

They will examine the files of the priests placed on leave in the context of four sources: the current Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Act and crimes code, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the responsibility for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to protect children.

The cases the team will examine vary from boundary issues that may involve inappropriate conduct with minors to allegations of sexual abuse.

The team includes:

* Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychiatrist and member of the Pennsylvania Sexual Offenders Board and Pennsylvania Medical/Legal Advisory Board on Child Abuse;

* Barry Zakireh, a forensic psychologist specializing in adult sexual offenders and a member of Pennsylvania’s Sexual Offending Assessment Board (concerning Megan’s Law);

* Maria DiGiorgio McColgan, founding director of the Child Protection Program at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, and a member, chair or founder of several child abuse and rape prevention groups;

* Thomas D. McDevitt, lead investigator on sexual assault cases with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Special Victims Unit; and

* Harry J. Young, also a sexual assaults investigator with the same police unit.

Smith believes the Archdiocese’s reliance on the team of outside experts following the grand jury report is genuine, not just pragmatic.

“They hired someone with a reputation for being an advocate for children,” she said. “They’ve given me the flexibility and freedom to put together a multidisciplinary team with unfettered access to documents, files and people. It’s been swift, and it’s been transparent. These actions speak volumes. It says to me that they get it.”

Frank Cervone, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Support Center for Child Advocates, says Smith’s appointment reflects the attempt by the Archdiocese to set matters right in the scandal.

“I believe they’ve always wanted to do what’s right. It’s just that they’ve had a misguided sense of what that means,” Cervone said. “They need to put truth and healing ahead of fears over scandal and embarrassment. That may be understandable, but it’s not acceptable.”

Colleagues describe Smith as a relentless prosecutor.

“You never wanted to get between her and a jury,” said Cervone. “If you did, you’d probably lose.”

Arthur Makadon, Ballard Spahr’s managing partner, who hired Smith after her time in the DA’s office, praised her laser-like focus.

“She has great ability to get to the essence of a problem quickly. The more complex a problem, the better she is,” said Makadon.

She will need that focus as she and her team of forensic psychiatrists and child abuse experts try to determine what recommendations to make about the 27 priests presently on leave.

Ultimately it will be up to Cardinal Rigali to decide what actions to take.

John Gillespie is a freelance writer and member of St. Bridget Parish.