Archdiocese suspends 3 priests, hires former sex-crimes prosecutor

Gina Maisto Smith, who spent 15 years prosecuting sex crimes, will study accused members of the Phila. clergy.
Gina Maisto Smith, who spent 15 years prosecuting sex crimes, will study accused members of the Phila. clergy.
Posted: February 17, 2011

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Wednesday suspended three priests and said it had hired a former sex-crimes prosecutor to take a fresh look at dozens of other clergy still in their jobs after being accused of abuse or inappropriate behavior.

Cardinal Justin Rigali called the moves part of a "continuing response" to the arrests last week of four priests, and a Philadelphia grand jury's finding that the archdiocese protects abusive priests and fails to help victims.

In his strongest language since the furor broke, Rigali also acknowledged the outrage and distrust aimed at the church and its leaders.

"Many people of faith and in the community at large think that the archdiocese does not understand the gravity of child sexual abuse. We do," he said. "The task before us now is to recognize where we have fallen short and to let our actions speak to our resolve."

The steps were designed to address one of the most controversial findings in the 124-page grand jury report: its contention that as many as 37 active priests in the Philadelphia region have been accused of abusing or acting inappropriately around minors, but not removed.

The three whom the grand jury named and highlighted were the ones Rigali placed on administrative leave: Joseph L. DiGregorio, Joseph J. Gallagher, and Stephen B. Perzan. The cardinal said each would "refrain from public ministry" until a reexamination of allegations against them.

Overseeing that review will be Gina Maisto Smith, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who now works for the Ballard Spahr law firm. Smith spent 15 years prosecuting sex crimes, but was not part of the investigation that led to the groundbreaking 2005 grand jury report on abuse by priests in the five-county archdiocese.

A board member at Catholic Social Services, Smith said she was hired Tuesday after talking to the cardinal about the latest grand-jury findings. Her job will also include communicating with the District Attorney's Office and advising Rigali on how to respond to the grand jury report.

Smith declined to say how much she was being paid.

She said she had no deadline for reviewing the old cases and did not know if church leaders would make her recommendations public. But, she said, "I will not turn my back on any evidence of child sex abuse or any evidence of a cover-up."

Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the steps "more lofty words, minimal action" by the archdiocese.

"We think the other 34 should be removed pending an investigation," Blaine said. "I believe it's time for the archdiocese to get out of the business of investigating sex crimes and leave it all up to the police."

Last week's indictment charged three priests and a former Catholic school teacher with molesting boys at Philadelphia-area parishes in the late 1990s. A fourth priest, Msgr. William Lynn, a former ranking official with the diocese, faces child-endangerment charges because he allegedly protected the priests by reassigning them and concealing the allegations.

The archdiocese had previously declined to discuss the claim that dozens of its current priests have been accused, except to say there were no active priests "who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor."

The grand jury did not say that all the priests had molested a child or that all the allegations had been proven. It said that church leaders had been slow to respond to its subpoena seeking information on accused priests and that the records it did receive were troubling.

The report claimed that the independent review board established by the archdiocese to examine allegations of abuse or misconduct had failed to recommend removing priests despite "very compelling evidence."

Three board members have challenged that assertion, nothing that Rigali has removed dozens of priests at their recommendation.

According to the report, Gallagher was twice accused of fondling altar boys at St. Mark's Church in Bristol.

One of his accusers, identified in the report as "Ben," allegedly gave archdiocesan victim coordinators a detailed account of how Gallagher molested him in the sacristy, the rectory, and at the home of the priest's mother.

The report said Gallagher gave investigators "evasive" answers about the claims, and that other altar boys confirmed aspects of Ben's account, although not the actual abuse.

Still, no action was taken against Gallagher. Ben later committed suicide.

Gallagher, who has since retired, could not be reached for comment last week.

Perzan was accused in two separate cases by former residents at St. Gabriel's Hall, a home for juvenile offenders in Montgomery County where he served as chaplain. According to the grand jury report, Perzan kept his post after flunking a lie-detector test about the allegations, and despite accounts from other witnesses about his inappropriate behavior around children.

He declined to comment when contacted last week.

DiGregorio was accused in 2005 of fondling a 16-year-old girl in 1967 or 1968 at Our Lady of Loreto in Philadelphia. He flunked a lie-detector exam and the review board initially found the allegation credible, according to the grand jury report. But in a second vote, the review board reversed its decision.

DiGregorio, most recently senior priest at Stella Maris Church in Philadelphia, has denied the claims. In a letter this week to The Inquirer, he said that he requested the lie-detector test and that the results were inconclusive if not wrong.

"I am not intimidated by false accusations against my character," his letter stated. "I am, however, very, very angry. I intend to fight these accusations with every legal means at my disposal."


Priests suspended by church

The Rev. Joseph J. Gallagher

Previous assignments: Had been pastor emeritus at St. Richard Parish in Philadelphia since October 2006. Pastor at St. Richard (January 1991 to October 2006). Parochial administrator at St. Richard (June 1990 to January 1991). Assistant pastor at St. Mark's in Bristol (September 1983 to June 1990). Assistant pastor at St. Monica in Philadelphia (June 1979 to September 1983). Assistant pastor at Ascension in Philadelphia (October 1974 to June 1979). Assistant pastor at St. Michael in Chester (June 1970 to October 1974). Assistant pastor at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul (June 1965 to June 1970). Assistant pastor at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Philadelphia (September 1963 to June 1965). Student priest at Catholic University of Puerto Rico (June to September 1963).

The Rev. Joseph L. DiGregorio

Previous assignments: Had been senior priest at Stella Maris in Philadelphia since June. Parochial vicar at St. Martin of Tours in Philadelphia (January 2005 to June 2010). Army chaplain (June 1998 to January 2005). Assistant pastor at Epiphany in Philadelphia (September 1987 to June 1988). Chaplain at St. Maria Goretti High School (August 1983 to June 1988). Assistant pastor at St. Paul in Philadelphia (September 1982 to September 1987). Assistant pastor at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Philadelphia (September 1977 to September 1982). Assistant pastor at St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi in Philadelphia (June 1976 to September 1977). Assistant pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas in Philadelphia (June 1971 to June 1976). On the faculty at Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote (September 1970 to June 1971). On a leave of absence from June to September 1970 after serving as assistant pastor at King of Peace in Philadelphia. Associate director of CYO Regional (April 1968 to June 1970). Assistant pastor at Our Lady of Loreto in Philadelphia (June 1966 to June 1970).

The Rev. Stephen B. Perzan

Previous assignments: Had been parochial vicar at St. Helena in Philadelphia since June 2004. Assistant priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Mission in Puerto Rico (October 2002 to June 2004). Parochial vicar at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Philadelphia (June 1998 to October 2002). Parochial vicar at St. Hugh of Cluny in Philadelphia (October 1997 to June 1998). Resident priest at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Philadelphia (June to October 1997). On loan to the Diocese of Gallup, N.M. (June 1994 to June 1997). Chaplain at St. Gabriel's Hall (April 1989 to June 1994). Resident priest at St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia (September 1987 to April 1989). Assistant pastor at St. Rose of Lima in Philadelphia (January 1985 to September 1987). Assistant pastor at St. Benedict in Philadelphia (June 1980 to January 1985). Assistant pastor at St. Elizabeth in Philadelphia (June 1975 to June 1980). Assistant pastor at St. Pius X in Broomall (June 1974 to June 1975). Assistant pastor at St. Stanislaus in Lansdale (June 1973 to June 1974).


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

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