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  Priests' Dismissals Confirmed David O'Reilly

Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
December 19, 2003

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia yesterday confirmed reports that it had dismissed four priests for sexually abusing teenagers and said its actions were proof that it was "living up to its promise" of zero tolerance of sex abuse.

"We do not like making this announcement at this time of year," archdiocesan spokeswoman Catherine L. Rossi said in an interview yesterday, "but it was a necessary part of the process of disclosure."

Rossi said all four priests - who, combined, have been associated with more than two dozen local parishes - denied the allegations.

The archdiocese has not ruled out the possibility of future dismissals, Rossi said. Cardinal Justin Rigali, she said, "has asked that all old cases be reviewed, including those not considered credible."

Following revelations last year that many bishops for decades shielded abusive priests, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted rules requiring every diocese to remove priests and deacons found to have abused a minor.

In April, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, then archbishop of Philadelphia, appointed a seven-member review board to advise the archdiocese on sex-abuse matters.

Jim Amato, the review board's chairman, said yesterday that the panel immediately began to review all abuse charges against its clergy. Those reviews led to the four recent dismissals.

Msgr. Leonard A. Furmanski and the Revs. Edward V. Avery, John A. Cannon, and Francis X. Trauger were removed from ministry between Oct. 23 and Dec. 12, according to the archdiocese, which announced the dismissals in yesterday's edition of the archdiocesan newspaper.

After examining an accused priest's files, "we would have conversations, basically around the core issue of the credibility of the allegations," Amato said in a phone interview.

If the allegations appeared credible, he said, the board arranged with a private investigator to conduct new interviews for possible corroboration of the claims. The panel then gave their recommendations to Rigali.

Furmanski, 72; Cannon, 81; and Avery, 61, were hospital or nursing-home chaplains at the time of their dismissals. Trauger, 58, was an assistant priest at St. Michael the Archangel parish in Levittown. All had worked in parish ministry during their careers.

None of the four priests could be reached for comment yesterday.

The newspaper, the Catholic Standard and Times, did not give details of the alleged abuses, but a statement by Rigali accompanying the article sheds some light on the priests' alleged actions.

"In these four cases, it has been determined that there are credible allegations of sexual misconduct with minors that took place many years ago," Rigali said in a statement yesterday.

Rigali also extended "deep apologies" to all victims of abuse.

The four priests will no longer be permitted to dress in clerical garb; be addressed as "Father" or "Monsignor"; or say Mass in public. The archdiocese has sent their cases to the Vatican for review, which may lead to the priests' being formally laicized, or defrocked.

Furmanski, ordained in 1959, was principal of Archbishop Kennedy High School in the 1960s and on the faculty of Cardinal O'Hara High School form 1964 to 1975. He was made a monsignor in 1998 and attended Rigali's installation ceremony in October. The allegations against him date to the 1970s, Rossi said.

Cannon, ordained in 1948, served in the 1950s and '60s on the faculties of St. John Neumann High School and Roman Catholic High School. The allegations against him date to the late 1950s and involve more than one accuser, Rossi said.

Trauger has been an assistant parish priest for most of his career. The charges against him involve more than one teenager and date to 1981, Rossi said.

Avery was ordained in 1970 and was in parish ministry for most of his career, until being appointed chaplain at Nazareth Hospital in 1993. Rossi said that the charges against Avery involve allegations that began in the late 1970s and lasted into the early 1980s.

Reached at his home in Haverford on Wednesday, Avery said he was "devastated" by the charges against him, which he said were false.

Avery said his only impropriety with a minor consisted of once taking a drunken teenage boy - whom he found lying in the cold - to his rectory. The boy slept untouched on a couch, Avery said.

In many ways, Avery was not a traditional Roman Catholic priest. Aside from his duties in the church, Avery moonlighted as a disc jockey at weddings, parties and dances. And in the early 1980s, he became the legal guardian of six Hmong children whose father had been killed in a truck accident. They lived with him in a house in West Philadelphia.

He was best known for his work with Philadelphia's Hmong community. He dedicated years to helping these Southeast Asian immigrants find jobs and transportation to work. They nicknamed him Txiv Plig Vam Nyiaj, which he once said roughly translates to "good as gold" or "priceless."

Amato declined to say whether the accused priests appeared before the review board, but Rossi said all were given the opportunity to be interviewed by the investigator.

In addition to Amato, who is deputy secretary for the archdiocese's Office of Social Services, the review board includes a lawyer, a priest, a pediatric nurse, a psychologist and a social worker. Several are not Catholic.

Rossi acknowledged that the news would "reopen a wound for many Catholics" and upset parishioners where the priests had worked. But she said "removing [abuser] priests is the right thing to do."

Rossi said the archdiocese would provide transitional assistance for the priests who will be living on their own.

 
 

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