Crisis in Philly: Trial Date Nears for Priests Indicted in Sex Abuse Scandal

As this article goes to press, a wrongful death claim has just been filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on behalf of the family of Daniel Neill, a former altar boy who committed suicide in 2009 after reporting his sexual abuse by a priest. This is the fifth civil suit to be filed since a grand jury report issued in February.

More than a year ago, I wrote in these pages about the Catholic Church and the sex scandal unfolding in Germany, Belgium, and other European countries. At the time, I surmised that the story would end much like it has here in the U.S., with rules, regulations and recriminations—but with abuses still occurring. 

What I didn’t anticipate was that the story would unfold steps away from my home and office in 2011.

Philadelphia’s Avenging Altar Boy

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Catholics have reached a reckoning. In February, a grand jury brought a detailed indictment against the Archdiocese for not following the 2003 recommendations of an earlier grand jury to prevent further abuse. In what reads like the resumé of a demon, the detailed sexual abuse, anal rape and sodomy of two boys, Billy and Mark, are graphically detailed.

As a result of the grand jury, four priests were indicted, including Monsignor William Lynn, the archdiocese head of clergy, on charges of endangering the welfare of children. Cardinal Rigali also removed 21 other priests from their offices after the Grand jury indictment was returned, after pretending that all was well, and that the Archdiocese had complied with the first grand jury recommendations. 

On March 25, the monsignor and three other priests were held over for trial in a raucous court hearing, which saw Judge Renee Hughes issuing a gag order forbidding all parties in the case from speaking to the media or reporters until the April 15th arraignment. Also at the hearing, conspiracy charges were brought against the priests. After the arraignment next month, it is expected that the cases will not come to trial until 2012.

What is different about the indictments here in Philadelphia is that it is the first time in the American Catholic Church that a church official has been arrested and brought to trial. Church officials have never been legally prosecuted for the mismanagement of priests and the countless shuffling of molesters and pedophiles from one parish to another until now. That blow was dealt by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (dubbed “the avenging altar boy” by columnist Maureen Dowd) who is spearheading not only this case, but the case against Kermit Gosnell, a physician who brutalized women at his clinic of horrors here in Philadelphia. The archdiocese has also hired a Catholic, Gina Maisto Smith, a former sex crimes prosecutor, to review the vast amount of archived files in relation to the personnel files of the 37 priests named in the grand jury indictment. It was on her recommendation that the 21 priests were placed on administrative leave. In addition to the four cases, four civil suits have been filed so far against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s case may be harrowing, but I suspect it is not unique. It is very clear that the first round of trials did not clean up every diocese. The work of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People clearly has not taken complete hold in the American church.

In a statement on March 24, the USCCB repeated their resolve to “recommit ourselves to the rigorous mandates of the Charter, and renew our confidence in its effectiveness” Archbishop Timothy Dolan, however, did not mention the Philadelphia case directly, even though the case is the perhaps primary reason the USCCB put out a statement. Too bad that the statement was lost in that same day’s announcement that the Oregon province of Jesuits had just agreed to pay out 166 million to Native Americans and Alaska Natives abused at boarding schools and fishing villages, and to write a letter of apology to those abused. Perhaps that news also played a role in reiterating the Charter’s statement. 

Protesting for Lent

Last year, I was disgusted with the church. This year, I remain disgusted, but I am also resolved to write all that I can about this case, in the service of putting this corrupt hierarchy in prison where they belong. I hope that the avenging altar boy can do what no other prosecutor has done: lock up a church administrator for their willful participation crimes of sexual abuse by playing the shell game with molesting priests and parishes. Until the leadership is hauled away along with the perpetrating priests, no change will ever come. The hierarchy of the church is about one thing, and one thing only: protecting its position and power, and those who hold it. 

A year later, I am in the same place I was last year, disgusted with the church. Now, I am also plain tired of the Catholic Church’s malfeasance. I spent Ash Wednesday not inside of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul here in Philadelphia, but on the outside watching members of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) pass out fliers to the hordes of faithful Catholics walking in to get ashes. 

Let me be clear. I am eating meat every Friday this Lent as a protest against a church that could care less about children once they get outside of the womb. It is no accident to me that the prosecution of Kermit Gosnell and the Archdiocese are occurring together. Both are killers, literally and figuratively. Like Zwingli, I am sausage-eating for Lent as a visible, defiant protest to a craven church that claims to care about the vulnerable flesh of children, yet has defiled children’s bodies for decades, even centuries.

Until the church has been cleaned of its jaded leadership—not with doctrines and pronouncements, but literally—the cycle of fake statements, weak repentance, payouts, and shell games will continue.