Probe: Did Church Officials Ignore Sexual Abuse

June 16, 2004

PHILADELPHIA - Prosecutors examining how the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia handled clergy accused of molesting children have been seeking out alleged victims and questioning church officials in what some say is an increasingly aggressive investigation.

Church officials, experts on sexual abuse and people who claim to have been molested by priests have been called to testify before a grand jury convened more than two years ago by Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham to review both new and decades-old allegations involving city priests.

It is examining whether church officials failed to report accusations against clergy or knowingly reassigned them to new parishes without taking steps to protect children.

Both Abraham's office and the archdiocese declined to discuss the probe this week, but witnesses asked to testify before the panel said prosecutors appear to be accelerating their work.

"I've been impressed at their lack of fear," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a cannon lawyer who has been an outspoken national critic of the church's handling of abuse cases, and who has appeared before the grand jury several times to help interpret the church's record-keeping system.

"I've been convinced in their ability to do the right thing," Doyle said.

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, who retired as Philadelphia's archbishop last year, has also appeared before the grand jury, as have other church officials, according to a person with knowledge of the case who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bevilacqua's appearances before the panel were first reported last week by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Attorneys Richard Serbin and Jay Abramowitch, who represent several people suing the archdiocese over their alleged abuse, said a number of their clients have either appeared before the grand jury, or met with detectives investigating the case.

John McDonnell, who says he was molested along with his two brothers by a priest when they were altar boys in the late 1950s, confirmed that he was among those who had testified. He said his brother, Alex, is scheduled to appear before the grand jury within days.

Prosecutors have also reached out to national experts on the Catholic church's hierarchy for help in explaining its personnel and disciplinary processes.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychologist, said he was called to testify twice about how the church organization keeps documents and has historically handled abuse.

Catherine L. Rossi, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, declined to discuss the case or Bevilacqua's testimony due to the grand jury's confidentiality rules.

The archdiocese said in February that it was aware of 44 priests who had been "credibly" accused of abusing minors.

Before his retirement, Bevilacqua wrote in a letter to Philadelphia Catholics that the diocese had followed state law in its handling of accused priests, never discouraged victims from going to law enforcement and had "made every effort" to prevent sexual abuse.

Several church officials have hired some of the city's top criminal defense attorneys in recent months.

One of the lead attorneys for the archdiocese, Richard A. Sprague, did not return a phone message. Attorney Frank DeSimone, who represents Bevilacqua, declined to comment.

John Salveson, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, praised prosecutors for what he said were extraordinary efforts to track down abuse victims and treat them with "respect and sensitivity."

He urged Abraham to push for criminal indictments.

"History shows that making deals with these guys does nothing to change them, and I hope our DA throws the book at them," Salveson said.

Prosecutors in several U.S. cities have pursued criminal charges against church officials for failing to report abuse. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati pleaded no contest in November to charges of failing to tell authorities about sex abuse allegations against priests.


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