Sex-Abuse Probe at Crucial Stage

By Tom Ferrick Jr.
Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist [Philadelphia]
June 20, 2004

There are signs that the investigation by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has entered a new phase. Let's call it crunch time.

For the last 25 months, a grand jury created by District Attorney Lynne Abraham has been looking into how the archdiocese responded to allegations of sexual abuse of youngsters by Roman Catholic clergy.

The Abraham probe practically slipped below the radar as Philadelphians turned their attention to The Bug Probe involving City Hall.

What now seems clear is that this grand jury has conducted one of the most extensive investigations of clergy abuse cases in the nation.

It has looked at dozens of such cases, interviewing alleged victims and alleged perps. It also has questioned numerous archdiocesan officials about their response to these cases.

Philadelphia's retired archbishop, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, has made a number of appearances to testify. His successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, has testified before the grand jury as well.

The investigators, to quote one victims' advocate, "are as serious as a heart attack. They are not fooling around."

One barometer of how serious it is: the appearance on the scene of two of the city's top criminal defense lawyers. Bevilacqua has retained criminal lawyer Frank DeSimone. The archdiocese has hired uber lawyer Richard Sprague.

Plea bargain?

Word of their arrival coincided with reports this week that the archdiocese is considering pleading guilty to charges of endangering the welfare of children - which could be either misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the number and severity of the cases.

Word of that possible plea by the archdiocese alarmed advocates for abuse victims. The Philadelphia chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) urged Abraham not to make any deal that lets the archdiocese escape responsibility.

As John Salveson, president of the local SNAP group, told me: "We don't want them to plea-bargain this away. We hope the D.A.'s office will lodge the most serious charges they feel they can lodge."

Let me add: I have no evidence Abraham is about to take a dive on this investigation. Nor does Salveson. In fact, he's uniformly praised the D.A.'s investigation.

But the archdiocese is a Big Dog. And you know my theory about Big Dogs. In Philly, they usually have their way.

So before this case advances into the spin phase, let's step back and look at some facts:

The 50-plus abuse cases confirmed by the archdiocese involve potential crimes. Let me name two: statutory rape and indecent assault.

Crime watch

These were not random street attacks. The perps preyed upon minors entrusted to their care.

That said, it is possible the statute of limitations has run out. The victims stepping forward today often recount abuse committed 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. It is going to be difficult for the D.A. to prosecute these cases.

That shouldn't stop the grand jury from fully documenting founded abuse cases, including the names of the perps. While many are retired and some are deceased, others - now out of the clergy - may have moved into occupations that put them into contact with youngsters. (Example: The priest who abused Salveson ended up as a high school guidance counselor.)

Closer in reach of the grand jury is the archdiocese's response to allegations of abuse. To simplify, the questions are: What did diocesan officials know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?

The church, in its own examination, has been highly critical of how abuse cases were handled generally in the nation's dioceses.

But, again, we aren't dealing with mere administration failings. We are dealing with potential crimes, among them conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and reckless endangerment of children.

Lynne Abraham knows that. The prosecutors know it. Now let's see how it plays out.

Contact Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2714 or Read his recent columns at


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