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  Archdiocese Ousts Priests Who Victimized Children

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer
February 23, 2002

Responding to the recent sex-abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, the Philadelphia Archdiocese in the last two weeks has dismissed a number of priests who sexually assaulted children, a representative said yesterday.

Philadelphia Archdiocese spokeswoman Catherine Rossi also said that archdiocese officials knew of 35 diocesan priests who had sexually abused approximately 50 children during the last five decades.

Rossi declined to divulge the names or number of the dismissed priests, acting on the advice of archdiocesan attorneys.

An archdiocese official who asked not to be identified put the number at about six. All of them were urged to relinquish their right to perform sacramental functions or face actions by the church to strip them of that right.

Rossi said that although the abuses took place years ago, the five-county archdiocese decided that retaining the priests "wasn't worth the risk" that they would abuse more children. "We can't supervise them 24 hours a day," she said.

But the archdiocese has no intention of identifying the dismissed priests to authorities, Rossi said, because it does not believe they pose a risk to children in neighborhoods where they might relocate.

Each of the dismissed priests had been under "close supervision" since he was charged with or admitted abuse, and all had been assigned to ministries such as office jobs that kept them from regular contact with children, according to Rossi.

The disclosures were prompted by the recent sex scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, Rossi said. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law has been widely condemned for allegedly protecting priests known to have sexually abused children, and his archdiocese recently turned over to authorities the names of 80 priests who abused children in recent decades; nine priests have been suspended.

"We don't have the problems of Boston," Rossi said yesterday.

Rossi said that there had been no allegations of child sexual abuse by a diocesan priest in the Philadelphia Archdiocese in the last three years but that four had been "medically diagnosed as pedophiles" in the last decade.

Two of the four are retired, and two have quit the priesthood, she said. Most of the 35 perpetrators are dead or retired or have left the priesthood.

The archdiocese immediately notifies civil authorities whenever a minor reports he or she has been sexually abused by a diocesan employee, as Pennsylvania law requires, according to Rossi.

But because Pennsylvania does not oblige a religious institution to notify authorities when a parent makes the allegation, the archdiocese usually leaves the decision to the parents.

"We always encourage parents to report," Rossi said.

The archdiocese's Office for Clergy investigates every accusation of clergy sex abuse to determine whether it is credible, Rossi said, but it is usually skeptical of people immediately demanding money for abuses they say happened long ago. The archdiocese usually pays only for psychotherapy for adults making credible allegations that a priest abused them as children.

Pennsylvania law bars virtually all lawsuits seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse filed after the victim turns 20.

New Jersey tort law, however, allows for the "late discovery" of psychological trauma caused by childhood rapes and other molestations. There, adults of any age may file suit for damages within two years of identifying childhood abuse as the source of severe mental or emotional suffering.

The most recent reported sex-abuse case involving a Philadelphia archdiocesan priest was that of the Rev. Michael Swierzy of Lower Makefield Township, who in 1998 pleaded guilty to repeatedly hugging, kissing, and taking to bed an adolescent boy during a three-year period.

"He cannot bear the memory of Father Swierzy," the boy's mother said at trial. "He suffers nightmares, anger and mistrust."

Father Swierzy, former principal of Cardinal Dougherty High School, was sentenced to five years' probation in a plea agreement.

In the last decade, the 1.25-million member archdiocese has paid $200,000 in damages to people alleging abuse by diocesan priests, according to Rossi - modest compared with the $23 million paid by the Diocese of Dallas and the $30 million paid by the Diocese of Stockton, Calif., both in 1998.

The Diocese of Camden reportedly paid $3.2 million between 1990 and 1993 to settle lawsuits filed by 15 men who contended that diocesan clergy had abused them as boys. The Camden Diocese is currently a defendant in another class-action suit brought by 19 men.

"Four or five" religious-order priests assigned to work in the Philadelphia Archdiocese have also been credibly charged in recent decades with sexually abusing a minor, or have admitted doing so, Rossi said yesterday.

Examples of religious orders include Franciscans, Augustinians and Norbertines, who often live in residential communities and may teach in schools. Rossi did not identify the orders whose priests have abused children in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Order priests who admit or are credibly charged with abusing a minor face criminal and civil charges in addition to discipline or expulsion by their provincial superiors.

There are about 800 diocesan priests in the archdiocese and about 400 order priests. Rossi did not have data on abuses by religious brothers, nuns, or lay teachers.

Rossi made yesterday's disclosures at the archdiocese's Center City offices to a small group of reporters who had inquired about clergy sex abuse in recent days.

Asked how the archdiocese dealt decades ago with priests accused of child abuse, Rossi contacted Msgr. William J. Lynn, secretary of the office for clergy, who said they were "probably" moved from parish to parish, allowing some to have repeated contact with children.

She said Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua - a canon lawyer and civil lawyer - addressed that practice soon after he was made archbishop of Philadelphia in 1988.

Rossi said the archdiocese had never had a voracious predator like Boston's John Geoghan, a defrocked priest reported to have abused 130 boys over several decades. He was sentenced Thursday to nine to 10 years in prison.

In Philadelphia, she said, the cardinal plans to make a public statement on the matter of clerical sex abuse next week.

 
 

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