Personnel Shifts Have Parishes Wondering: Where's Our Priest?

By John P. Martin
Philadelphia Inquirer
August 21, 2011

\"We are taking great care to tend to the needs of both the complainants and their representatives and the priests and their representatives,\" investigator Gina Maisto Smith said.

Where are the priests?

Are they coming back?

The questions have swirled since a scathing grand jury report on clergy sex abuse spurred the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia last winter to remove more than two dozen parish priests and reexamine old allegations that they molested or acted inappropriately around children.

The abrupt mass suspension - the largest of its kind nationwide - rocked the archdiocese, depleting some already short-staffed rectories and leaving behind as many questions as answers.

Last week, church officials said they were confident they would meet their original six- to nine-month timetable for finishing the review, suggesting some cases could be complete by September. They also announced an effort to develop "restoration plans" for the parishes that will regain or permanently lose priests.

But more than five months after the inquiry began, a cloud still lingers for many area Catholics.

Parishioners are frustrated by a lack of details about the accusations or their priests' whereabouts.

Scores of Philadelphia-area priests have launched an independent association to represent their rights before the church hierarchy.

And the clergy on leave remain paralyzed, some left to fend for their housing, transportation, and other needs while barred from practicing what to some has been a lifelong vocation.

"They're very upset, they're exasperated, they're angry," said Joe Maher, a Detroit businessman who runs a national support network for priests and said he talked regularly with the priests on leave.

Adding to the uncertainty is looming change atop the 1.5 million-member archdiocese. No one knows how next month's arrival of Archbishop Charles Chaput might alter the wave of changes, hires, and suspensions that his predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, ordered after the grand jury report.

The spotlight will not soon dim. Four more current or former priests, including a high-ranking diocesan official, await trial in the spring on child sex-assault or endangerment charges stemming from the yearlong grand jury investigation.

The judge in that case has ordered Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, 88, to appear in court Sept. 12 so she can decide if the archdiocese's former leader is competent to testify.

Nearly a dozen investigators and staff members are working full time on the inquiry and have collected tens of thousands of pages of documents and arranged for scores of interviews.

"We are taking great care to tend to the needs of both the complainants and their representatives and the priests and their representatives," Gina Maisto Smith, the former prosecutor hired to oversee the process, said Friday.

For some, the answers can't come soon enough.

Frank Szymendera, a parishioner at St. Agnes in Sellersville, was among thousands of area Catholics who arrived for Mass during Holy Week to learn their priest or pastor had been suddenly banished. The developments rippled to other parishes, where priests were plucked from posts and reassigned to fill the vacancies.

"What's bugging me right now is, this is how long?" Szymendera said. "It was Ash Wednesday, and now we're in August."

One of the priests on leave is the Rev. Joseph Bowe, who spent 15 years at Szymendera's church but most recently served a parish in Warrington. Another suspended priest, the Rev. Mark Fernandes, arrived at St. Agnes about three years ago. His departure fueled speculation about what, if anything, he had done wrong.

"The rumor had it that he was exonerated," Szymendera said. "Now there are stories that none of the priests were exonerated."

In its report, the grand jury said the archdiocese had let dozens of priests remain in active ministry despite credible accusations of sex abuse or misconduct around children. The panel did not name the priests and acknowledged it did not know the details of all the allegations, but it pointed as examples to three cases in which priests were investigated after accusations that they had molested children. (Like many clergy sex-abuse cases, the complaints were too old to be prosecuted by civil authorities.)

Within days, Rigali suspended those three priests. Then he placed on leave 23 others who at some time had also faced unproven accusations of sex abuse or misconduct.

Smith has declined to discuss the allegations except to say they range from sexual assault to "boundary issues," such as a priest giving presents, talking about sex, or sharing pornography with minors. Her task is to recommend their "suitability for ministry."

"In 100 percent of these cases, at least 50 percent of the constituencies are going to be very unhappy," she said. "These cases don't lend themselves to storybook endings."

The priests on leave still collect their salaries but have been barred from distributing sacraments, publicly celebrating Mass, or returning to their parishes. Many are living with relatives or friends, officials say, although the archdiocese has arranged housing for a few.

Where the priests have gone and how they spend their days have been a mystery to some in their flock.

"I've really been concerned about where these guys have been," said Joy Wuenschel, a member of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic group advocating for change. "It scares to me to think they're just out there loose."

It is unclear if such concerns are valid. The archdiocese has not released details of the cases or signaled that it ever will. Smith said that she understood "the need for the release of some information around the allegations," but that no decisions had been made about what such information might include and who would get it.

One of the suspended priests, the Rev. Joseph DiGregorio, 71, said he had been staying with his sister since being told to leave Stella Maris rectory in Philadelphia.

DiGregorio was first accused about five years ago by a woman who said he molested her when she was a teenager in the late 1960s. His was one of the unproven cases cited in the recent grand jury report. He is also the only suspended priest to publicly deny any wrongdoing.

"I'm not hiding anything," DiGregorio said in an interview Friday, accompanied by his lawyer, Greg Pagano. "I didn't do this."

DiGregorio said he and the other suspended priests had gathered a few times in recent months to share a meal and a Mass. He said he had received 800 letters of support since being placed on leave.

Barred from celebrating Mass or ministering to the sick, he said, he now helps his sister, exercises four days a week, and sometimes fishes. On Sundays, he said, he returns to Stella Maris to check his e-mail and celebrate Mass, alone, in a rectory chapel.

DiGregorio said that two investigators from Smith's office had interviewed him in early July but that he had had no contact with the archdiocese in months. He said he was frustrated by the delay.

"I want to come back," he said.

Other priests on leave have not been forgotten. Some are still listed on their parish's weekly bulletins or websites. At St. Luke the Evangelist in Glenside, the Mass intentions at times have included prayers for the church's suspended pastor, Msgr. J. Michael Flood. At Our Lady of Charity in Brookhaven, Masses once celebrated by the Rev. Mark Gaspar are routinely being offered for him.

But the suspensions, the grand jury report, and its aftermath also stung the remaining priests in the region.

Last month, scores of area priests agreed to form the Association of Philadelphia Priests. Its mission, according to proposed bylaws, includes providing another voice for policies "that respect the canonical, civil, and human rights of a priest."

Similar groups operate in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and other cities, but one is unprecedented in Philadelphia.

The movement is still taking shape, though largely out of the spotlight. A formal vote on its bylaws and executive officers is not scheduled until October, a month after the new archbishop's arrival. Organizers declined to discuss their new group.

"As we await the arrival of Archbishop Chaput, we are very hopeful for the presence of a shepherd who will care for all of his flock - including the priests," said one, who asked not to be identified. "There are many in the church, clergy and lay faithful, who are hurting."

Some are still scrambling to absorb new assignments and demands caused by the suspensions.

At SS. Simon and Jude in Westtown, parishioner Ronald Brooks has seen a parade of new faces on the altar. First they lost the Rev. Joseph Glatts, who was placed on leave in March. Then the parish's parochial vicar, the Rev. Stephen A. Moerman, was reassigned to St. Isaac Jogues in Wayne, another parish that lost its pastor to suspension.

Brooks said he was worried about his parish but also curious to know where the suspended priests would end up.

"I was more concerned about the Catholic Church continuing what they have been doing," he said.


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