Amid American church abuse scandal, Philadelphia stands out
New Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and outgoing Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Rigali.
July 19th, 2011
03:33 PM ET

Amid American church abuse scandal, Philadelphia stands out

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.

Pope accepts resignation of Philadelphia archbishop amid sex scandal

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Crime • Pennsylvania • Sex abuse

soundoff (291 Responses)
  1. John


    July 19, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  2. mark

    Babylon cannot be healed according to the scriptures – so i think you are right when you say the catholic church will be okay, it's true or at least until they are judged. You say some corrupt people, try the entire system and everyone caught up in it. do yourself a favor and read your bible. salvation does not come through the sacrements nor is the catholic church going to stand with you on the day of judgement. The only one who can save you is the One who died for you. He died to destroy the very thing that religion tries to rebuild. but this is what happens when man tries to put themsleves in place of God. it's alarming that so many follow Babylon the Great but i guess that's the way it's always been.

    July 19, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  3. donklos

    After seeing the smiling priests in the photo and reading the headline, I was hoping the story would be that Philly was boasting a very clean slate, giving some hope. But boy was it a let down. There has got to be serious criminal action booked on this, and the leaders of all those other cities mentioned must pay. This is the worst kind of abuse, resulting in decades of ramifications. Not only are the victims terrorized for life, the very foundation of the church is cracked.

    July 19, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  4. mark

    catholics molest kids because they prohibit marriage. 1Tim Ch 4 try understanding why they do these things. its a doctrine of demons according to the bible. but catholics dont read the bible nor do they follow the plain and simple teachings of it. do you recall the dark ages? the catholic church is the furthest thing from biblical christianity, if you want to know what the world will be like under catholicism look at what it was like under their rule. it will be once again one day just pay attention. those that are deceived are coming back to babylon in mass.

    July 19, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  5. Imnottaxfree

    Just shoot them in the head and leave em in the ditch

    July 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  6. Leo Carey

    Folks: I keep hearing about "Prosecuting the archbishops" and "holding the Church Criminally liable." Won't change a thing. The church will simply honor the guilty as martyrs and continue to ignore all reality. Hey, they've been at it for 1700 years, and they are professionals.

    You want to move the guys in the hats? Take the Real Estate! Confiscate the assets! Hit these "Princes of the Church," in places they value and find important. If shame could fix this, it would have been fixed a long time ago. The Catholic Church is a real estate trust. Hit 'em where they live.

    July 19, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • mervel

      The True Church is a faith and a Spiritual Body of believers, in communion with Christ through His Body and Blood. The sacraments are not dependent on real estate. I somewhat agree with you, there is an inverse relationship to the value of real estate held by the Church and the spiritual strength of the Catholic Church. Europe is full of expensive Church holdings and in many ways is spiritually dead, Latin America, Africa, China, Southeast Asia, India, those places the Church is vibrant and growing and its real estate is often in the basement of someone's humble home or made of sticks. I would not mind giving up some empty cathedrals, the faith is not dependent on them in any way.

      July 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  7. mervel

    The Catholic Church will be fine. Certainly there are some corrupt people without faith who are in the outward organization, but the True faith is about what Jesus has done for us and truth of His sacred life as transmitted through the Sacraments and the Church itself. But with over one billion members on every continent in the world and around 1/2 million priests and millions of deacons, monastics and nuns, you can expect to get some freaks. But the majority are faithful people dedicated to God and the faith.

    I don't know if you don't like Catholics don't be one, but it is not healthy to be obsessed with a faith you are not part of.

    July 19, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • maggie smith

      RIGHT ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 19, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • youvegottobekiddingme

      It isn't the church that's under attack it's the people that are abusing children and the supervisors that are worried more about the appearence of their organization than the victims. Grow up and stop trying to hide behind the cloth.

      July 19, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Sara


      July 19, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • littlelamb

      Yes, the Catholics will always be fine. Most of these messes are created by the devil to discredit the greatest faith on earth. The devil is working so hard to push the majority of these world into hell. To remind the world, Satan has long began his rebellion! it's SATAN'S times, you know?

      July 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • SRD

      great comment!!!

      "I don't know if you don't like Catholics don't be one, but it is not healthy to be obsessed with a faith you are not part of"

      July 20, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  8. Marty

    Now it's time to investigate another scandal within the Catholic Church....granting annulments. The same men of the church who consecrate a marriage also destroy and declare invalid, marriages of ten, twenty and thirty years. For thirty pieces of silver, any lecherous and unfaithful man can have his marriage annulled.(see T Kennedy, N Gingrich and maybe R Guilliano or your wealthy next door neighbor). As a result of the church's actions,The Sacrament of Marriage itself has been annulled.

    July 19, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • mervel

      If you don't like the way the Catholic Church handles the sacrament of marriage join a different Christian Church, this is all voluntary, no one makes you be a Catholic or voluntarily seek an annulment from this group of people you voluntarily joined or voluntarily got married within.

      July 19, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  9. jpa

    Let He/She is without sin, cast the first stone,

    However, anytime those who sit in positions of Power, wether it is political, business, and or religious, the sin of pride, arrogance, takes over, pushing control over human beings and snubbing God, yet in the end God humbles the proud and lifts the humble. In the end the light of God will reveal every act and every thought, there is no place to hide.
    Look at every headline on this network.....

    July 19, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • News Flash

      Every one makes mistakes, but NOT everyone ruins another person's life. YES do judge. That trite saying does not apply, and if your god exists, it gave me the brain to know the difference.

      July 19, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • LinCA


      I am without sin. Actually, I'm incapable of committing any sin. Where should I cast that stone?

      July 19, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  10. florida native

    if you do these crimes to children....pity on you....but to assist and cover up.....its about the money.....the cathiloc church is the devil in disguise

    July 19, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • maggie smith

      you're a first class jerk!

      July 19, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • littlelamb

      You know that, it's all money ...then how can you be sure that these priest and the catholic church as guilty as think. With the HARSGIP of the AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE for many decades, most evil Americans are looking for some ways to make big backs, and the catholic church is just a victim- and a good victim I mean to get easy of that winning lottery! yOU CAN NEVER PUT DOWN OR DESTROY A "ROCK" THAT WAS BUILT BY THE ALMIGHTY GOD. Even the worsiest accusations will be thrown to the Catholic church, iit will remain stand firm and strong. It's SATAN'S TIME YOU KNOW, AND ALL THESE ARE PARTS OF SATANS TO DOMINATE YOU AND THIS WORLD!

      July 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  11. SoundOfForest

    The Catholic Church must be well aware that the world is trying to discredit her, if not destroy her altogether, since average people are increasingly coming to hate what is good and honorable. The Church must stick to the right principle and go back to the Word of God con-stan-tly. Truth cannot be hidden for long.

    July 19, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Michael

      You have to be joking right?

      July 19, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • florida native

      brainwashed follower

      July 19, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • nofilter

      Please do not breed.

      July 19, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  12. Andrea

    The Pope should resign for aiding in the cover-up and failure to accept responsibility and make changes. The Pope is at the beck and call of the college of Cardinals who are doing their best to maintain control, instead of being servants of the people.

    July 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  13. SoundOfForest

    Now is the time Catholics to go back to the Bible study, starting from priests. Rising above scandals is a sign of true strength of an in-sti-tu-tion. Truth always overcomes.

    July 19, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • florida native

      anyone w/ a functioning brain does not believe in organized religion.......you do not need cathedrals and such......

      July 19, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • nofilter

      Do you think putting dashes in words makes you look smart or adds emphasis? No, it only emphasizes your stu-pi-di-ty.

      July 19, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  14. mervel

    The problem is how to handle these sorts of accusations. For example priests abuse at lower rates than public school teachers; most men who molest children are not celibate, so those types of arguments are just based in anti-Catholic and basic Christian bias. The problem is that you have a bunch of unproven allegations, what do you do with them? Should a principle who hears a rumor about a teacher report that teacher to police right away? I think maybe he or she should and the Bishops should have done the same thing. But what about teachers, in NY they send teachers who have accusations of molesting children to the rubber room, they don't automatically fire them because there is no due process. The same should probably hold for priests, the vast majority of these guys have not been proven guilty of anything. The key is to get the legal process moving let them have their day in court or drop it.

    July 19, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • melany

      stupid response.

      July 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  15. james

    test, test.

    July 19, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • Menos

      @ James – to get past the CNN post filter system, you have to write diabolically sick stuff like our @ Tea and $odomy troll friend below. Gawdspeed.

      July 19, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  16. Tea & Sodomy

    These are men of gawd – and if they deem fit to molest and bugger innocent children, then who are we to criticize. After all, they're doing the work of gawd.

    July 19, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • Renelda Moorehead

      What a wicked sense of humor! It is inappropiate to say the least.

      July 19, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  17. paulm5545

    Thanks to a history of abuse, denial and cover-up, all the accused are guilty until proven innocent. I just cannot imagine how any priest, bishop, cardinal or pope could participate in this and yet, they did time and time again. Representatives of God? Disgusting.

    July 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Menos

      What is disgusting is allowing blind rage and bigotry to guide your sense of justice. Surely logic and experience informs us that out of n number of accused parties (bishops, priests, school teacher, average citizen, etc) there is likely to be a significant percentage of them who are innocent of any wrongdoing related to the charges against him. Leave your pitch fork, torch, and rope at the door and consider meditating on the value of our "innocent until proven guilty" justice system.

      With that said, for those folks who are involved with this horrible and filthy system of abuse - we need to throw the book at them and prosecute each case aggressively in a effort to shine light on the troubling truth. Do the crime, do the time. It's that simple.

      July 19, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  18. Jimmy

    Is he any kin to you?

    July 19, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  19. BottomFeeder

    the culture of the RCC throughout the centuries has been shrouded in mystery and controversy – all of the changes are the result of having humans in position of power who have never been held accountable for their actions outside the Vatican.
    As the RRC evolved from being

    July 19, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  20. gary

    Hunt them down and kill them!

    July 19, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.