Expert: Probe Will Go Right to the Top

By Ron Goldwyn
Philadelphia Daily News [Philadelphia PA]
Downloaded April 1, 2004

The Philadelphia grand jury appears to be going "right to the top" in its long-secret probe of priest sexual abuse, according to an expert witness who testified before it on Catholic hierarchy.

"They're going to the top. They will always look to the top. The archbishop is ultimately the one responsible," the Rev. Thomas Doyle told the Daily News yesterday.

Doyle wasn't predicting specific charges against any of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia leadership. But he noted, "does the hierarchy in Philadelphia have responsibility for mishandling cases? My strong suspicion is yes."

Experts say the grand jury is almost certainly going beyond individual priests and long-ago abuse cases to focus on questions of continuing culpability by higher-ups.

A presentment yesterday that charged a priest repeatedly molested a teenage boy at Northeast Catholic High School 1978-80 could be the tip of the iceberg in the two-year probe, expert observers said yesterday.

District Attorney Lynne Abraham refused again to discuss the grand jury's work except to term it "complex." She said the case against the Rev. James J. Behan was "just the first presentment."

Church authorities and priests have insisted old abuse allegations fall outside the statute of limitations but victim groups believe leaders should be accountable for continuing coverup.

Marci Hamilton, a law professor and expert in church-state issues who has closely followed local developments, said it is "a good sign" the grand jury is taking so long.

Hamilton, a Bucks County resident on leave from Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University, said it likely means the investigators are "being very careful" and "finding enough material to continue."

"One of the primary questions has to be: Is there institutional liability for criminal acts by the hierarchy and the larger church?" said Hamilton. "That takes a great deal of investigation."

Doyle is a Dominican priest and canon lawyer who alerted American bishops to the looming crisis in a 1985 report for the Vatican's U.S. embassy - and was ignored.

He's since become a witness on the church's inner workings in several hundred abuse victims' suits and before grand juries nationwide.

The archdiocese "has been and continues to cooperate" but can't comment further because of grand jury secrecy, spokeswoman Catherine Rossi said yesterday. Rossi said a month ago the archdiocese had "turned over all cases no matter how old" for authorities to review.

Doyle said he believes the grand jury, which began in April 2002 after the national abuse scandal erupted in Boston, is nearing the end of its work.

Doyle, in a phone interview from Washington, said he had testified in Philadelphia "more than once" and felt the long probe "reflects the thoroughness with which the investigation is being carried out."

Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist who first reported on abuser priests in the 1980s, co-authored "Vows of Silence," a new book chronicling Doyle's story. Berry said he believes the Philadelphia probe's length owes to "the complexity of history of personnel practices - when was a priest moved, why was he moved" and how investigators are "immersed [in] the history of concealment patterns."

Hamilton said Philadelphia may be benefiting from other grand jury reports as well as new books and reporting on widespread evidence of coverup.

"We've learned so much more in the past year in how the hierarchy hid pedophiles, so this grand jury is constantly getting fresh information," she said.


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