Rigali Taking over 'Strongest Archdiocese'
But Church Expert Says He Needs to Listen to Lay Concerns

By Ron Goldwyn
Philadelphia Daily News [Philadelphia PA]
October 7, 2003

CARDINAL-DESIGNATE Justin Rigali today inherits, as incoming archbishop of Philadelphia, a strong Catholic community at times obedient, contentious and orthodox.

Rigali, 68, has a hard act to follow. The flock of a million-and-a- half Catholics is accustomed to the pastoral, photogenic, even charismatic leadership of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, retired but still vigorous.

The scandals and controversies pinballing through U.S. Catholicism, especially regarding priest sexual abuse, finances and rambunctious laity, have merely grazed Philadelphia.

The five counties of Rigali's new realm have long been models of "pray, pay and obey."

The Vatican may not say so aloud, but it likely considers Philadelphia a shipshape, tightly run diocese in the churning sea of the American church.

Here's what it looks like on Day 1 of the archbishop's tenure.

Orthodoxy and morale

Orthodox is the word often applied to Philadelphia.

When Bevilacqua turned 80 in June, Protestant ally William Devlin of the faith-based Urban Family Council said: "There is no question the archdiocese is orthodox, and I say thank God for that. He leaves Philadelphia as the strongest archdiocese in the nation."

Philadelphia is brimming with the loyal and the faithful.

"The majority of the Catholics will be very supportive of him as they were with Cardinal Bevilacqua," said Betty Kelly, 81, a eucharistic minister at her Delaware County parish. She is eager to learn more of the new archbishop, but with a tinge of regret.

"I was disappointed that we were losing Cardinal Bevilacqua, but I guess they have to step down."

Rodger Van Allen, a Villanova professor specializing in church history, said that Rigali receives a reservoir of good will but that he needs to listen to voices insisting on a greater role for laity.

"It's important to say Catholicism in the archdiocese of Philadelphia represents a strong community of faith," Van Allen said.

"It's one that's ready for collaboration in being a ministering community. What ordinary Catholics want is honesty, openness and respect. They want to be real partners in dealing with what needs to be dealt with, not be told by the hierarchy, 'Leave it to us.' "

Sexual abuse

A Philadelphia grand jury hangs over Rigali's head.

It has been secretly investigating priest sexual abuse for more than 17 months, although public revelations suggest the problem is far less serious than in Boston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Brooklyn and elsewhere.

Bevilacqua has said all priests facing credible abuse charges have been removed from active ministry, but he identified only a few. He has adopted norms required by U.S. bishops for assessing accusations, and for counseling, treating and apologizing to victims.

The archdiocese faces no whopping judgments such as the multimillion-dollar settlements or claims elsewhere, nor have there been widespread reports of abusive priests protected and moved from parish to parish.

But SNAP - the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which bedeviled Rigali in St. Louis - has an assertive and critical Philadelphia chapter.

John Salveson, its leader, is skeptical. He said he'll make specific requests to Rigali for meetings and new anti-abuse policies.

"The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," he said.

Rigali said Sunday, in turning down a meeting with St. Louis SNAP, that he plans to meet with abuse survivors in Philadelphia. That doesn't necessarily mean SNAP.

Salveson said SNAP has been "shut out" by Bevilacqua's administration, which he feels has "failed to make any attempt to identify and locate the abusive priests."


Rigali, as he moves into his 12th-floor office overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway tomorrow, will quickly learn the details of church finances almost unknown beyond those walls.

In a rare release this summer, the archdiocese showed $334 million in spending and a $6.9 million deficit for the year ending June 30, 2002. It has offered no details or comparative data, and it says 2002-03 figures aren't available.

"One thing the [priest sexual] scandal did was point out to Catholics how little they know about church finances," said Charles Zech, a Villanova professor and expert on church finances.

"There's been a backlash, and the bishops heard that loud and clear. But it's been a minimalist reaction" in terms of transparency, he said.

Zech said the 2001-02 deficit "obviously" had been caused by more than a stock market downturn in investment income. But on such slender data, he said, "it's hard to guess" how much the economy, reduced government payments or unhappiness in the pews is to blame.


Philadelphia is not always the docile diocese. Reform and protest movements coursing through American Catholicism all have beachheads here.

Sexual abuse victims, the reform-minded Voice of the Faithful and a feisty teachers union are part of the mix.

Recent national presidents of both the women's ordination and gay Catholic movements were Philadelphia women. Both groups have often demonstrated outside the cathedral where Rigali will be installed this afternoon.

Bud Bretschneider, leader of Voice of the Faithful, said his reform-minded members have "heard the rumors from St. Louis" that Rigali brooks no dissent. But Voice has sent a letter of welcome to him and seeks a meeting.

"We are all giving him an opportunity to make a fresh start," Bret-schneider said. "It is true we are a very docile community in Philadelphia, but there are a few people, very active in their parishes, very committed, who are distressed. Some are on the edge."

Voice of the Faithful, which began in Boston demanding church accountability over the abuse scandal, has a local chapter, numbering about 200.


"I'm going to take him at his word on his commitment to education," said Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers, which recently ended a two-week strike at 22 high schools.

His arrival "doesn't wipe the slate clean with the archdiocese, but Rigali was not here when the strike occurred and didn't hire the people we believe caused the strike," Schwartz said.

But she's also aware, she said, that Rigali did battle with parochial school teachers who sought to unionize in St. Louis, and he has been a tough administrator.

Rigali will face decisions on closing more inner-city schools and parishes as the Catholic population shifts toward distant suburbs. Shrinking enrollments and rising budgets have forced dislocations, although critics say the church could do better.

Rigali can keep, or alter, a buffer system called cluster planning, developed to deflect the harsh criticism directed at Bevilacqua after closings a decade ago. It forces parishioners to make hard choices in their own communities before it reaches the archbishop's desk.

"We may have to close schools and churches, but we will never abandon the community," Bevilacqua said last week. "It could be that [Rigali] will face decisions on closing... . Neighborhoods change, we have to respond. But we only do it after very careful study."

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