At 'The Villa': Prayer, Penance ... and Fallen Priests

By William Bender
Philadelphia Daily News
April 3, 2008

THE VILLA ST. JOSEPH retirement home in Delaware County provides one of the clearest examples of how the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has dramatically changed its approach toward clergy sexual abuse.

The 55-bed facility, on Lans-downe Avenue in Darby Borough, is home to Archdiocese retirees, including 20 priests found by the church to have abused minors and who have agreed to accept a "life of prayer and penance" under church supervision.

Today, "the Villa," as it is popularly known, employs a former probation officer and a psychologist to oversee those in its sex-offender-treatment program. Security has been upgraded with cameras and a swipe-card access system. The priests, ranging from ages 58 to 88, must submit travel logs and participate in individual and group therapy.

But it hasn't always been that way.

Before the Boston Archdiocese sex-abuse scandal in 2002, the Philadelphia Archdiocese placed virtually no travel restrictions on Villa priests, some of whom have been living in the retirement home since the mid-1990s, church officials say.

Nor did it disclose the allegations that had been leveled against the priests when it hired local high-school students to work there.

"We didn't know that [there] were child-molesters," said a former Villa St. Joseph employee. "We were never told any of that."

The employee, who asked that her name not be published, recalled that one priest tried to grab a boy's buttocks but that "we would laugh it off, saying, 'Oh God, look at the guy, he's senile.' " Children would occasionally take food to priests' bedrooms, she said.

"I really liked some of these priests," she said. "Then after I found out what they did, it's like, ' . . . [W]e put people away for this!' I got sick to my stomach when I read the [2005 Philadelphia District Attorney's] grand-jury report."

The former employee said that she had not witnessed any overt acts of sexual abuse while working at the Villa, and the Archdiocese says it is not aware of any such allegations there.

Monsignor Timothy Senior, who became the Archdiocese's vicar for clergy in 2004, acknowledges that the church's earlier policies at the Villa were flawed - by hiring teenagers to work there and by not disclosing why the accused priests had been removed from ministry.

"They were sort of sheltered away," Senior said of the priests. "It's a very different day now. It's a totally different situation."

Among the priests who lived at the Villa during the 1990s, according to the grand jury report and Archdiocese records, were:

* Thomas F. Shea, who admitted to having had "genital contact" with a fifth-grade altar boy and another boy in the 1970s, according to the Philadelphia grand-jury report;

* William T. Joseph, accused of sexually abusing a fifth-grade rectory worker in the 1970s;

* Pasquale R. Catullo, accused of sexually abusing a female student at Archbishop Kennedy High School in the 1960s;

* Michael W. Swierzy, who pleaded guilty in 1998 to corruption of minors and was sentenced to five years' probation. Swierzy died in 2005.

Senior said that the Villa's practice of hiring high-school students has been discontinued and that the travel restrictions on priests began in earnest when the prayer-and-penance program took effect in February 2005.

"We understand this situation in a completely different light," Senior said.

The Archdiocese hired outside consultants to conduct risk assessments of the 20 priests at the Villa who it believes to have abused minors and to develop a customized treatment program for each.

"If you're going to be in this program, you need to recognize that you're going to be monitored," Senior said.

Priests at the Villa, situated between the St. Francis Country House nursing facility and Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, receive a small pension, and their living expenses are covered by the Archdiocese.

The 20 who have been credibly accused of abusing minors are not permitted to wear clerical clothes and can celebrate Mass within the facility only.

Though the priests are free to leave the Villa on their own, travel requests must be approved in advance. Overnight stays, such as a visit to a relative's home, are "by exception," Senior said.

"They are probably watched as much, if not more, than general probation in Philadelphia," said Mary Achilles, the Archdiocese's victims' advocate.

"It's not a jail," she said, "but it's the closest thing we can do."


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