Phila. Priest Who Admits Fondling Girl Is Suspended

By Nancy Phillips
Philadelphia Inquirer
March 28, 2005

The Catholic Church has suspended a former Center City pastor and placed him under investigation after he admitted to The Inquirer that he had repeatedly fondled a teenage girl decades ago.

The church acted after being told by The Inquirer of allegations against Msgr. Philip J. Dowling on March 18. That day, church officials barred him from public ministry and from wearing his collar in public.

Dowling, 75, who retired in July as pastor of St. Patrick parish, told the newspaper that he had repeatedly engaged in "inappropriate" touching of the girl, but denied abusing her sister, as both women now allege. He admitted the touching was sexual. "It crossed the bound," he said, "and I'm very sorry for the inappropriate acts and touches."

The case raises questions about District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham's long-running grand jury probe of sex abuse by clergy. The two sisters gave detailed accounts to Abraham's office nearly three years ago.

But church officials say prosecutors never told them of this, even though at the time Dowling was pastor of St. Patrick, a large congregation just off Rittenhouse Square.

Nor, it seems, did the district attorney ever question Dowling.

The Inquirer interviewed Dowling three times this month after the sisters, now in their 50s, gave a reporter detailed and painful accounts.

Both women described years of abuse; both recalled a day their mother found the priest in their bed and sent him fleeing with shoes and socks in hand. One sister remembered feeling so guilty that she tried to confess to a priest; the other attempted suicide at age 13.

When asked if the women's allegations were true, Dowling said: "It was affection leading into other things. It's been 40-some years ago, and it's the only situation like that that ever occurred in my life. . . . It's because I was very close to the family."

He denied only that the behavior had continued for as long as the women allege.

The priest sat in silence when a reporter told him one of the sisters alleged an outright rape.

But in a later interview, Dowling said he had only "touched" one girl when she was probably in her late teens.

Pat McMenamin, now 53 and living in Florida, said Dowling began abusing her when she was 8 and her sister was 9. He was the family's parish priest at Corpus Christi Church in the Allegheny West section of North Philadelphia, and a frequent visitor to their home.

McMenamin said the assaults had continued until she was 14.

"Nobody thought anything about sending the parish priest up to tuck the kids in," she said.

As a child, she said, she lay in guilty silence as Dowling climbed into the bed she shared with her sister and took turns assaulting them.

"When he was doing his thing with her, I felt horrible for not protecting her," McMenamin said. "I can still hear my sister's voice, telling him, 'No, no. Stop.' "

McMenamin's sister, who asked that her name not be used, said she recalled episodes of abuse from when she was 11 or 12 until she was 18.

Once, she said, the priest raped her - an allegation Dowling adamantly denied in his later interview. He also denied touching the girls' genitals and disputed other details of their allegations.

"Never would I admit it," he said when reminded of his earlier words. "There are things that those ladies are saying that I neither admit nor deny. Something inappropriate happened. That's what I meant to say yesterday."

"Nothing happened when they were little girls, except for signs of affection," the priest said. ". . . Memories going back 40 years can dim. They had to forget or distort in their minds, because it did not happen."

Frustrated by investigation

McMenamin contacted The Inquirer last month, saying she wanted to tell her story publicly because of frustration with the pace and secrecy of the grand jury probe.

She and her sister said they had spent hours with investigators in 2002, detailing abuse by Dowling. McMenamin said she also had given a long written statement.

Unlike some accusers in the priesthood scandal, the sisters did not sue. McMenamin said the district attorney's investigators had discouraged them from filing a lawsuit, saying it would make them less credible.

But they were not called before the grand jury. And until The Inquirer began asking about the case, they said, they had heard nothing more from Abraham's office. McMenamin said that a prosecutor had left her a message Thursday, but that she had not reached him.

"I was led to believe something was going to be done," said McMenamin, a Navy veteran who works as a self-employed exterminator. "Let us know. Do we have hope? What was the purpose if it wasn't to give us some sense of justice?"

That question has lingered over the grand jury's secret proceedings. Like the sisters' allegations, most of the abuse reported to the panel is decades old, and the statute of limitations on any such crimes has expired. So prosecutors have focused on whether the archdiocese ever put children at risk by protecting accused priests or covering up past crimes.

That did not appear to be an issue in the sisters' case: They said they never reported the abuse to the church. While the District Attorney's Office has examined allegations dating back decades, prosecutors apparently never questioned Dowling or called him to appear before the grand jury.

Abraham, who pledged in 2002 to investigate "all allegations involving priests, whether they are dead, dismissed or retired," declined to comment last week. Through spokeswoman Cathie Abookire, she cited the grand jury's secrecy and a court-imposed gag order.

The archdiocese, which encompasses Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs, said the allegations described by The Inquirer were the only ones known to have been made against Dowling in his 49-year career.

By restricting Dowling's ministry, the archdiocese stopped short of removing him, pending a church investigation, spokeswoman Donna M. Farrell said. In the last half-century, the archdiocese has said, 47 of its priests, living and dead, have been "credibly" accused of sexually abusing minors.

Though two powerful institutions, the church and the District Attorney's Office, have vowed in recent years to root out sex abuse by clergy, the Dowling case suggests it may be difficult, if not impossible, to learn the full extent of the scandal.

The allegations against Dowling, for one, seemed to slip below the radar of both law enforcement and the church.

Interviews with Dowling

On March 16, a reporter interviewed Dowling in his modest home in the city's Juniata section. He sat quietly in a living room decorated with a crucifix and a picture of the Pope.

"I really don't know what to say," he said when first told in detail of the women's allegations. "I'd rather not say anything."

In an interview the next day, Dowling said he hoped the church would not learn of the allegations: "If this comes to their attention, they must act, and the action will not help anyone."

He noted that in recent years, the archdiocese had moved more quickly against accused priests.

"There's no weighing of the seriousness of the effects and the consequences," Dowling said. ". . . If I acknowledge it, the diocese would have to act."

He said he was baffled that the women had complained. "The family remained close friends even after the situation that you're describing."

Dowling said the allegations would devastate those who still turned to him for spiritual advice. "I've had hundreds and hundreds of people who I've worked with who hold me in high esteem," he said. That morning, he said, a woman had invited him to her autistic son's first Communion.

As for the sisters, the priest said he would "be happy" to meet with them and apologize.

McMenamin, told of Dowling's initial admission, exclaimed: "I've waited for this day forever. I'm shook to my core. . . . My heart is pounding.

"It's an exhilarating sense of freedom in one way," she said. ". . . Here he is confronted with his own sin, and he says, 'Yes,' and yet the minimization is very hurtful."

For Dowling to say the abuse had grown out of "affection," she said, was offensive.

Over the years, she and her sister said, Dowling fondled them, touched their genitals, had them touch him, and ejaculated. "That was affection?" asked McMenamin, who said she had tried to kill herself at 13 by swallowing sleeping pills and a bottle of shoe polish.

Her sister, a mother of four who still lives in the Philadelphia area, said: "I don't remember if it started in 1961 or 1962, but I remember exactly what I wore, and I remember exactly how it started to happen.

"As God as my judge," she said, it was far worse than what Dowling was now admitting.

"I have lived with this for 40 years," the woman said, weeping. "It was a dirty secret."

As a child, she said, she came to believe that what had happened made her guilty of a "sin of impurity." Once, she went to confess this to a priest.

But as she knelt in the darkness of the confessional, she said, she realized that the priest on the other side of the partition was Dowling.

So she walked out, she said, taking her secret with her.

McMenamin recalled how, when she was 12, their mother found the priest half-naked in bed with her sister, then 13 - and chased him from the house.

"He was running down the steps - believe it or not, with his shoes and socks in his hand - and my mother was screaming," McMenamin recalled. Her sister recalled the priest's scrambling to pick up his clothes.

Their mother, now deceased, made them promise not to speak of it, saying, 'Don't tell your father. He'll kill him,' " McMenamin recalled.

But the priest kept visiting.

"As a child," McMenamin said, "here is a man we believe is endowed to change a piece of bread into Christ and wine into his blood. That's a powerful thing. Who are we going to tell that this man who could make Christ out of a piece of bread was doing this? It was our little lonely word against his."

Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or

How Accusations Against a Priest Surfaced: Key Dates

April 2002: Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announces a grand jury probe of sex abuse by clergy and vows to examine all allegations, no matter how old. Investigators begin interviewing dozens of witnesses.

Later in 2002: Two sisters tell the district attorney's investigators that Msgr. Philip J. Dowling assaulted them repeatedly, starting before they were teenagers and continuing for several years when he was the family's priest in the early 1960s.

July 2004: Dowling retires as pastor of St. Patrick Church at 20th and Locust Streets and is given the title of pastor emeritus.

March 2005: The sisters repeat their allegations against Dowling to The Inquirer. In interviews, Dowling admits he repeatedly engaged in "inappropriate touching" of one girl and denies other aspects of the women's accounts.

March 18: The newspaper asks the archdiocese about the allegations. Church officials, saying this is the first they have heard of it, inform Dowling, 75, of the allegations and place him in restricted ministry, meaning he cannot say Mass, perform the sacraments, or wear his clerical collar in public. A church investigation begins.


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