Grand Jury Report: Archdiocese's Policies on Sex Abuse by Priests Feeble and Ineffective

By John P. Martin
Philadelphia Inquirer
February 11, 2011

Midway through the opening page of the latest grand jury report on sexual abuse by Philadelphia priests are four words as damning as any in the 124-page document:

"Much has not changed."

Five years after a previous grand jury vilified archdiocesan leaders for tolerating and protecting abusive priests, the report unsealed Thursday went a step further.

It portrayed changes implemented by the archdiocese since the scandal first unfolded as feeble, ineffective, or even deceptive.

Victims were "virtually hounded" by assistance coordinators, while accused priests weren't confronted, the panel concluded.

The review board designated to hear abuse allegations routinely ignored evidence substantiating those claims, the grand jurors contended. And at least 41 priests were left in active posts around the region after being accused of inappropriate behavior or abuse of minors.

"The evidence presented before us indicates that the Archdiocese continues to engage in practices that mislead victims, that violate their trust, that hinders prosecution of their abusers, and that leave large numbers of credibly accused priests in ministry," the report stated.

In a statement, Cardinal Justin Rigali said he could not address specific allegations until officials reviewed the report. He did, however, assert that "there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them."

Like its 2005 predecessor, the latest report detailed in graphic terms instances of alleged abuse by priests. One case involved a 10-year-old victim who was allegedly "passed around" among two priests and a teacher at St. Jerome's Parish in Northeast Philadelphia in 1998 and 1999.

The report lauded church officials for agreeing to notify law enforcement when it receives a substantiated accusation. It noted that the archdiocese established a review board with civilians to consider abuse allegations and hired victim-assistance coordinators.

But within that structure, the grand jury found flaws that raised questions as to whether some changes were being used to protect victims - or the church itself.

The allegations involving the priests and teacher at St. Jerome's came to light in 2009, the report said. The accuser, identified in the document only as "Billy," said he reported the abuse in a phone call to an archdiocesan victim-assistance coordinator.

Instead of taking the basic information and passing it to authorities, victim assistance coordinator Louise Hagner went to Billy's house and pressed him for more details, the report said. She also notified diocesan lawyers that Billy had hired an attorney.

In another case, in 2006, Hagner allegedly insisted on interviewing a victim while he was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, then persuaded him to sign releases so the archdiocese could obtain his medical records.

According to the grand jury, that detailed information was shared with other church officials and church lawyers.

"As a strategy to uncover the truth, this contradictory policy of insisting on detailed statements from victims, while at the same time refusing to take any statements from accused priests, makes no sense," the grand jury concluded. "It is only rational as a strategy for avoiding civil and criminal liability."

A call for comment left at Hagner's home late Thursday was not returned.

The report also cast doubt on the integrity of the review board, an eight-member body of clerics and lay professionals that vets allegations.

"The Review Board finds allegations 'unsubstantiated' even when there is very convincing evidence that the accusations are true," the grand jury concluded.

In one 2007 case, it said, a 36-year-old man claimed to have been repeatedly molested decades earlier by the Rev. Joseph Gallagher, a priest at St. Mark's Parish in Bristol.

The accuser, identified only as a former altar boy named Ben, recounted vivid details of the abuse, including encounters that he said occurred in the sacristy, the rectory, the priest's car, and the priest's mother's house, the report said.

The allegation was the second in about a year involving Gallagher, the grand jury said. Other altar boys from the parish confirmed that the priest routinely asked them about masturbation during confession, and one said the priest had "improper relationships" with students but didn't elaborate, the report said.

Confronted with the accusations, Gallagher first denied them, then became "more evasive," the report said. He has since retired.

Ben later committed suicide, according to the report.

Another priest, the Rev. Stephen Perzan, was allowed to keep his ministry after allegations of abuse in 2005 and 2006 by two former residents at St. Gabriel's Hall, a delinquent home where Perzan worked in the 1990s.

Perzan flunked a lie-detector exam when asked about the allegations, the report said.

The Review Board found the allegations to be unsubstantiated. Perzan is now a parochial vicar for St. Helena Parish in Philadelphia.

Attempts to reach Perzan and Gallagher through the archdiocese were unsuccessful.

Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.