Why 37 Accused Priests Are Still Serving

By David O'Reilly and Nancy Phillips
Philadelphia Inquirer
February 13, 2011


A Phila. grand jury cited allegations of abuse and inappropriate behavior. Three cases show how the archdiocese rejected them.

A bomb was buried deep in last week's grand-jury report on clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:

At least 37 priests accused of molestation and other inappropriate behavior toward children have been allowed to remain in active ministry.

"These simply are not the actions of an institution that is serious about ending sexual abuse of its children," the report said. "There is no other conclusion."

Cardinal Justin Rigali was quick to respond.

"I assure all the faithful that there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them," he said in a short letter to all 267 parishes in the 1.5 million-member archdiocese, sent hours after the report's release Thursday.

Rigali's assurances did little to assuage concern among the many Catholics across the region reeling at the grand jury's other surprise: the indictment of Msgr. William Lynn, former secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, on charges of endangering the welfare of children, a felony offense.

Lynn, 60, is accused of putting children at risk by assigning known abusers to parishes. Through his lawyers, he has denied any wrongdoing. Also charged were two other priests, a defrocked priest, and a parochial-school teacher, accused of raping two altar boys, ages 10 and 14, in 1996 and 1998.

The grand jury's assertion that dozens of others facing abuse allegations are still in parish ministry brought angry demands from victim advocates for names and action.

"Suspend these dozens of priests immediately," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who led a small rally outside archdiocesan headquarters in Center City on Friday. "Suspend first, investigate later."

The archdiocese declined Friday to respond to additional questions from The Inquirer about the grand jury's finding on suspect priests.

Three members of the independent advisory group responsible for reviewing abuse accusations for the archdiocese said Saturday that they were perplexed by the allegations that dozens of abusive priests remain in ministry.

They said their board had considered allegations against more than 50 priests in the last eight years, that it most often had voted for the archdiocese to remove or take other action against the accused priests, and that its recommendations almost always had been adopted.

"There were cases where we said we don't have enough evidence at this time - based on the evidence that has been presented to us - to say that this was an instance of sexual abuse," Ana Maria Catanzaro, who chairs the seven-member review board, said in an interview Saturday. "There are also some where we said we don't have enough evidence, but there's concern here about these behaviors and we recommend that this person be removed or there be a safety plan."

Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen, coauthor of the report, stood by its assertion that the archdiocese has tolerated and protected abusive priests in its ranks.

The grand jury learned that credibly accused priests remained in ministry from testimony by the head of the church's victim-assistance program, Sorensen said. In response to a subpoena, the archdiocese promptly provided the panel with personnel records on about 20 priests, she said, but failed to turn over 17 others.

Sorensen said the grand jury never saw those 17 files, but it believed they contained complaints of abuse or other inappropriate behavior.

She also said a section of the report stated erroneously that the archdiocese had allowed at least 41 priests accused or suspected of lewd behavior with children to remain in active ministry. The correct number is 37, she said, because four priests had been counted twice.

From the records, the grand jury found that the Archdiocesan Review Board repeatedly had dismissed seemingly compelling cases, including some in which priests failed lie-detector tests.

Catanzaro and two other board members interviewed Saturday declined to discuss specific cases or their decisions. "The recommendations we made, they have been based on the evidence that was given to us," Catanzaro said.

The grand-jury report offered three cases that Sorensen described as "typical."

Disputed timeline

A 36-year-old man told church officials in 2007 that the Rev. Joseph J. Gallagher had repeatedly fondled him and talked about masturbation when the man served as an altar boy at St. Mark's parish in Bristol.

The man supplied a detailed description of Gallagher's mother's house, where, he said, the priest had abused him.

His allegations echoed an account brought forward a year earlier by a 44-year-old man who said Gallagher had fondled him on a school trip in second grade and had discussed masturbation while in the confessional.

The Archdiocesan Review Board dismissed those allegations because the man had told church officials that he believed the incidents had taken place in 1968 or 1969. Because Gallagher did not arrive at the parish until 1970, the board called the allegation unsubstantiated.

It came to the same conclusion in the case of the 36-year-old man - for reasons the grand-jury report does not make clear - and kept Gallagher in ministry.

Less than a year later, that man committed suicide, devastated, his mother said, that the church had not believed him.

Gallagher did not respond to a request for comment left for him Friday with the archdiocese.

Failed a polygraph test

A man told the archdiocese in 2004 that when he was 14 and in a program for delinquent youths at St. Gabriel's Hall, the Rev. Stephen Perzan showed him pornography and masturbated him four or five times in 1991.

Already in Perzan's personnel file was a letter from a pastor complaining that Perzan had allowed young children into the rectory without proper supervision. Perzan, he said, sometimes spent 30 minutes in the confessional with young children. He found the priest's behavior "troublesome" and thought it might reflect "deeper problems."

In 2005 the Archdiocesan Review Board concluded that the man's allegation "could not be substantiated," in part because it did not believe Perzan had access to a VCR for viewing pornography.

Two months after the board's decision, a 26-year-old man came forward to say that when he was at St. Gabriel's in 1993 and 1994, Perzan reached into his pants and fondled him.

The review board later learned from an administrator at St. Gabriel's that Perzan was "too friendly with the kids" and often had young people in his room with the door closed.

The administrator also said that Perzan had access to a VCR, and that she had heard that the priest showed boys pornographic movies.

In a polygraph test, Perzan was asked whether he had ever fondled minors or shown them pornography. When he answered "no," the polygraph registered deception, the grand jury said.

Yet the review board unanimously found the man's allegations "not substantiated." Though it recommended a "safety plan" for Perzan, it kept him in ministry. He is now parochial vicar at St. Helena parish in Philadelphia.

On Friday, Perzan said his lawyer had advised him not to discuss the matter.

A board reversal

In 2005, a woman told the archdiocese that two priests at Our Lady of Loreto parish in South Philadelphia had sexually abused her when she was 16.

She said the Rev. Joseph DiGregorio had kissed her, taken off her bra, and lain atop her in his parked car.

She also said the Rev. William Santry had fondled her and forced her to masturbate him.

When confronted, Santry admitted that, the grand jury said. He also told church officials that he believed DiGregorio had fondled the girl.

On a polygraph test, DiGregorio's denials registered as "deceptive," according to the grand jury.

In a 2006 decision, the review board called the test "inconclusive." Even so, it found the woman's allegations credible, in part because of Santry's admission, and recommended a "safety plan" for DiGregorio.

Two months later, the board reversed itself, citing "insufficient conclusive evidence," and lifted the safety plan; DiGregorio has remained in active ministry.

The grand jury said it found the review board's decisions "inexplicable."

In an interview Friday, DiGregorio said the accusations against him were false. "Absolutely none of that is true," he said. "I deny every allegation made by this individual. We're talking about something 45 years ago.

"My credibility as a priest has never been questioned."

Since the grand-jury report was made public, he said, many people have called him to lend their support. "I'm just so angry because of these lies."

Prosecutors said Friday that they, too, wanted the truth.

If archdiocesan officials "find that these people were wrongly accused, they should tell us that in response to what we said," Sorensen said. "They should show us what the allegations are, and why they think they're not true."

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