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  Clergy Sex Abuse Inquiry Labors on
Nearly 3 Years and Hundreds of Witnesses Later, a Grand Jury Has Charged Just 1 Man. Victims' Frustration Grows

By Nancy Phillips
Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
February 6, 2005

Hundreds of witnesses have been interviewed. A cardinal's words and deeds have come under scrutiny; even his appointment books are of interest. Behind the closed doors of a Philadelphia grand-jury room, tears have flowed.

But after nearly three years, the nation's longest-running investigation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy has yielded but a single arrest. And some victims have become frustrated by the probe's secrecy and its lumbering pace.

When she launched the inquiry at the height of the abuse scandal, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham vowed to root out abuses by Philadelphia clergy, living or dead. That was in April 2002.

"It's been three years, and the victims want to know what's going on," said James P. Dolan of South Philadelphia, who told investigators that his parish priest abused him as a teenager. "I want to know what's going on behind those doors."

People familiar with the investigation say the grand jury toils on, with new documents or testimony each week, and prosecutors considering criminal charges.

Any decision on whether to file charges will fall to Abraham, who declined to comment last week, citing grand-jury secrecy rules and a gag order imposed by the judge.

The grand jury has heard testimony from scores of victims, priests and church officials, including Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

Prosecutors called the cardinal to testify several times and questioned him in detail about the handling of abuse reports during his tenure, according to people familiar with the grand jury's work. Investigators have sought to review the cardinal's appointment books, said two people familiar with the probe.

Through his lawyer, Frank DeSimone, Bevilacqua has declined to comment. The cardinal retired as head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in June 2003 at age 80 and was succeeded by Cardinal Justin Rigali.

The decision to call Bevilacqua to testify underscored the seriousness of the inquiry and kindled hope among abuse victims, who saw it as a sign that the grand jury was examining the hierarchy's handling of abuse allegations.

The law cloaks grand juries in secrecy, and Common Pleas Court Judge Gwendolyn Bright, who is supervising this grand jury, has ordered lawyers and witnesses not to talk about it.

Still, some details have emerged.

The 23-member grand jury has heard accounts of child rape and other abuse allegedly committed by priests, according to people familiar with its work. The testimony has been starkly emotional at times.

Last year, a 39-year-old Malvern woman wept as she told the panel that the Rev. Leonard Furmanski had abused her between 1979 and 1981, when she was a teenager and he was her priest at Sacred Heart parish in Swedesburg, Montgomery County, her lawyer said.

"You could hear a pin drop in the room," said her lawyer, James P. Peters. "These people were literally on the edge of their seats listening to her."

Furmanski, who could not be reached for comment, remained in parish ministry until 1999, when he was reassigned to be a chaplain at Nazareth Hospital. He was removed, along with three other priests, in late 2003.

The archdiocese declined to say Friday how many priests it has removed for sexually abusing minors since February 2002, when Bevilacqua disclosed that he had removed "several" priests for past abuses.

A year ago, the archdiocese said 44 priests had been "credibly" accused of abusing minors since 1950. In November alone, it removed three.

What role, if any, the grand jury investigation played in those three dismissals was not immediately clear. Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna M. Farrell said, "Because of the secrecy imposed by the grand jury proceedings, I cannot comment any further."

Last summer, the grand jury charged the Rev. James Behan, 60, of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, with raping a 15-year-old in the 1970s. The boy was a student at North Catholic High School, where Behan taught.

Many abuses described to the grand jury are decades old and the statute of limitations has expired. So prosecutors have focused on how church leaders dealt with abuse reports - in particular, whether the church endangered minors by not acting quickly on abuse reports or notifying police.

Under Bevilacqua, the archdiocese moved some accused priests to monasteries, hospitals or other places to keep them from children. But the church did not always alert other priests and parishioners to the reasons for the transfers, a former church official has said.

People familiar with the investigation say it has turned up no case in which a reassigned priest went on to abuse again. Even so, prosecutors have weighed whether such moves posed enough risk to justify filing criminal charges.

At one point last year, the church's lawyers floated the possibility of having the archdiocese plead guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. It could not be learned whether those negotiations are continuing.

Through Farrell, Rigali declined to comment, citing the grand jury's secrecy. "The archdiocese continues to participate in the grand jury proceedings," Farrell said.

Richard A. Sprague, lawyer for the archdiocese, did not return phone calls last week. Since he was retained last summer, he has filed motions challenging the grand jury's validity and seeking to bar participants from talking to the press.

Abraham, who is seeking a fourth term, faces a challenge in the May 17 Democratic primary from Seth Williams, a former prosecutor - prompting speculation that she may put off action in the church inquiry until after the primary.

"As an incumbent in a low-turnout election, it's in her political interest not to have controversy and not to do anything to boost turnout," said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political consultant.

Through her campaign director, Eleanor Dezzi, Abraham declined to comment.

John Salveson, head of the local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said, "If I was a Catholic in Philadelphia, I would be a little insulted by the viewpoint that I might not vote for Lynne Abraham... if she discovered and exposed criminal behavior in the church."

When Abraham's grand jury completes its work, it will have several options. It can hand up indictments or issue a report with policy recommendations, or both.

Elsewhere, outcomes have varied: In 2003, prosecutors got the Diocese of Phoenix to admit lapses, agree to reforms, and set up a victims' fund. That same year, after a 20-month probe, Cincinnati's archdiocese pleaded no contest to five misdemeanor counts of failing to report abuse. A grand jury on Long Island issued a scathing report but no criminal charges. A grand jury is still probing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Salveson, who is on the board of the national group known as SNAP, said Abraham had invested too much time and resources to achieve no results - to "just come up to the mike and say, 'Everything's cool.'

"So the question is: Is it a scathing report?" Salveson said. "Or is it an indictment?"

Inquirer staff writers David O'Reilly, Jim Remsen, Maria Panaritis, Craig R. McCoy, Emilie Lounsberry and Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.

 
 

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