July 19th, 2011
03:33 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) - Accusations and revelations of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests have been hitting American cities for a solid decade.
The now-global scandal broke in a big way in 2002 in Boston and has ensnared dioceses from Los Angeles to Kansas City to Memphis, along with many others.
But Philadelphia, where Archbishop Justin Rigali stepped down Tuesday - five months after the scandal struck his city – is different.
The scandal there could open a historic chapter in the abuse crisis, church watchers say, changing the way the American criminal justice system deals with church abuse and challenging the church’s claims that that reforms adopted in the wake of the Boston scandal have largely rooted out abuse.
“What makes Philadelphia devastating is allegations that priests who were facing credible accusation of sex abuse were still working in parishes as recently as February,” CNN senior Vatican analyst John Allen said. “This is not about misconduct that happened 50 years go. This is about the failures of today.”
The scandal hit Philadelphia five months ago, when a grand jury charged four priests and a parochial school teacher with raping and assaulting boys in their care.
The charges were unusual because they went beyond accusations against priests. A church higher-up was charged with covering up the abuse, which church experts say had never happened in the United States before.
But the grand jury also took the unusual step of releasing a report alleging that as many as 37 priests remained in ministry in Pennsylvania despite credible accusations of abuse.
Although the abuse alleged in the grand jury report happened more than a decade ago, accusations that accused priests remained active challenged the church line that reforms adopted by American bishops in the wake of the Boston scandal had largely stamped out abuse.
The American bishops’ reforms, adopted in 2002, include a zero-tolerance approach toward priests who are known to have abused children; mandatory reporting of abuse allegations to authorities; and the creation of local boards of lay Catholics to respond to such allegations.
But the allegations of the grand jury report raise doubts about the application of those standards.
“The story that the Catholic bishops have tried to tell is that, yes, the sex abuse crisis is terrible, but it’s in the past,” Allen said. “They say they’ve been called into account and cleaned up their act. Some have even argued that the church has become a social model for protecting children from abuse.”
Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of abuse victims in church lawsuits, says the grand jury report shows that the church is “singing a different tune but taking the same kind of actions to protect themselves.”
“Philadelphia demonstrates that abuse is every bit the current problem that it was in the past,” Anderson said. “There has been no fundamental change.”
The four priests and parochial school teacher charged in Philadelphia are pleading not guilty.
Rigali had initially challenged the claim that as many as 37 allegedly abusive priests remained active in the archdiocese, but eventually, 29 of them were placed on administrative leave. No further investigations were conducted on the remaining eight.
Allen says that many American bishops are waiting to see how the Philadelphia archdiocese responds to accusations about the priests named in grand jury report but that if abuse allegations are born out, there is likely to be widespread anger.
“You’ll find a lot of bishops who are outraged because they worked hard to apply the 2002 reforms,” he said. “They’ll realize that their credibility is under attack and badly damaged because of Philadelphia.”
In charging a church official with covering up abuse, the Philadelphia cases could also establish a national precedent for authorities holding the church hierarchy responsible for abuse.
Patrick Wall, a consultant to church abuse victims who says he is helping Philadelphia’s district attorney build a case against the archdiocese, hopes the threat of prison time will change the way American bishops respond to abuse allegations in a way that civil lawsuits have not.
"In the civil cases, we have taken over $3 billion, but you're not getting a lot of change in the system," he says.
Anderson says that he’s representing roughly two dozen abuse victims in suits against the Philadelphia archdiocese.
“Some have sought our help for years, but we weren’t able to help them because of the statute of limitations,” he said. “The grand jury report gave us a new legal basis to bring claims of cases we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.
“And because of all the publicity,” Anderson said, “a lot of other survivors have come forward.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.