Philadelphia-Area Priests Suspended for Suspected Child Abuse

VIDEO: Support groups take action in abuse cases involving the Catholic Church.
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It's Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for Catholics, but churchgoers observing the holy day at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia had an unusual greeting on their way into mass. They were met by silent protestors -- clergy sex-abuse victims -- who handed them leaflets about sexual abuse as they entered the cathedral.

That's because across the city, beginning today, Catholics are learning the names of the 21 Roman Catholic priests suspended on Tuesday by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia following a two-year sexual abuse investigation.

The archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali, announced Tuesday that he was putting 21 priests on administrative leave after a grand jury report, released last month, naming the priests as suspected child molesters.

Today, during mass at the cathedral, Rigali called on worshippers to pray for the abuse victims as well as the suspended priests.

Outside the cathedral, Mary DeSilvestro struggled to understand the alleged abuse.

"It's something that should have never happened, especially to little kids, anybody really," she told ABC News affiliate WPVI. "Horrible."

Last month, the district attorney's office charged two priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher with raping boys. A former church official also was charged for allegedly covering up crimes.

The grand jury report also criticized the Philadelphia archdiocese's handling of sexual abuse accusations, claiming 37 priests were child molestation suspects, yet remained in ministry.

Rigali retained former child-abuse prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith to review the report and conduct a separate investigation into the claims. It was Smith's suggestion to put the 21 priests on administrative leave.

"These have been difficult weeks since the release of the grand jury report," Rigali said in a statement Tuesday, "difficult most of all for victims of sexual abuse, but also for all Catholics and for everyone in our community."

Barbara Blaine, the president of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, was among the silent protestors outside the cathedral. She said Rigali's actions are too little, too late.

"It's like a belated, begrudging, bare-minimum step to remove these 21 priests," Blaine said. "If Cardinal Rigali were really interested in protecting the children, he would have done this a long time ago."

She criticized the cardinal for not releasing the names of the accused priests Tuesday when he announced their suspensions.

The Philadelphia archdiocese began individually notifying parishes today of which priests were suspended.

Blaine hopes that after the parishes are notified, the priests' names will become public, because she believes it will encourage more alleged victims to break their silence.

Of the abuse she endured, she said, "The impact is so profound that we really do believe that we were the only one. ... I had been part of abuse support groups for years before I found out other people were victims of the same priest."

In Rigali's statement Tuesday, he emphasized that each priest's case will be thoroughly investigated and that the suspensions are interim measures.

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