Keeping religion out of work

Seth Williams :". . .I do lovemy church."
Seth Williams :". . .I do lovemy church."

An active Catholic, Seth Williams vows to seek justice.

Posted: February 20, 2011

Bound by both his devotion to Catholicism and his sworn duty to prosecute crime, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams had a choice to make.

A grand-jury report on clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was ready for public release. At the same time, Catholic Schools Week was starting on the last Sunday in January.

During the annual national celebration, "the kids are cleaning up their churches and schools to market them so that people who might want to go to school can come and see," Williams said Thursday in an exclusive interview with The Inquirer. "They take pride, and they are working hard."

"So as not to interfere with that," he said, he delayed until Feb. 10 the announcement that shook the region's Catholic community.

Two priests, one defrocked clergyman, and a parochial-school teacher were indicted for allegedly sodomizing two boys in the late 1990s. A former secretary for clergy was charged with child endangerment for allegedly knowing about their predations and not effectively stopping them.

In the 18th-floor aerie that he has occupied since taking office little more than a year ago, Williams keeps a crucifix on a side table. A trophy cabinet holds a photograph from his middle-school years as an altar server at St. Carthage Church in West Philadelphia. Prosecuting the men he calls "pedophile priests" is clearly a painful obligation.

"What is difficult for me with this whole investigation is that I do love my church," he said, "and I recognize that despite my efforts to try to separate the two - the bad men doing bad things who have to be held accountable [and the church itself] - there will be [ripple] effects. There will be some people who might not want to give to the [church's] development fund or the capital campaign . . . or some parents might not want their kids to be involved with some sort of activity. It pains me to know that."

He said it was difficult "recognizing that in some ways, because I have to do what I have to do, it opens up a can of worms that some people will use to hurt the church or to hurt children who depend upon these programs."

Williams is more than a mere member of the flock at St. Cyprian's Church in West Philadelphia. He is part of "the cardinal's cabinet," an informal board made up of about 40 or 50 prominent Catholics who advise Cardinal Justin Rigali "about what is going on in the city," Williams said.

In fact, in a conversation before going public with the recent indictments, Williams said, he gave Rigali a heads-up.

"To his credit, at no time did he say, 'Don't do this.' He wasn't trying to do anything to protect pedophiles," Williams said. "His primary concern was that we allowed [the archdiocese] enough time so they could have in place counselors and people receiving telephone calls" to manage the fallout.

"I told the cardinal, I said, 'Your Eminence, I hope you know I don't take pleasure in doing things that in any way have a negative impact on the church. I have to do what I was elected to do, and I believe there is probable cause to hold [the indicted priests] accountable to secular society.'

"And at the same time, he promised, and I promised him, that if there is any way that we can work together in the protecting of children going forward, that's what we are going to do."

Williams' relationship with the archdiocesan hierarchy set the rumor mill cranking during his 2009 campaign for district attorney.

After serving as Philadelphia inspector general and leaving that office in 2007, Williams was an of-counsel lawyer with Stradley, Ronen, Stevens & Young, the principal firm representing the archdiocese. William Sasso, chairman of Stradley Ronen, had been quoted as calling the scathing 2005 grand-jury report on clergy sex abuse "incredibly biased and anti-Catholic."

As Williams ran for D.A., the Web site Young Philly Politics lit up with blog postings, questioning whether his connection to Sasso would somehow compromise him.

"Will Seth Williams be able to fairly and objectively evaluate and prosecute allegations of clergy abuse?" a skeptical blogger wrote in an April 5, 2009, posting echoed by others.

Still other bloggers chimed in to defend Williams, saying he should not be held accountable for any particular statements from Sasso. The online back-and-forth lasted about a week. Finally, on April 12, 2009, Williams weighed in.

"So that others don't have to answer for me . . . over and over again. YES," he wrote, "I will prosecute those that abuse children regardless of their religious affiliations."

At the Feb. 10 news conference announcing the indictments, Williams said, he emphasized that "this isn't a witch hunt. This isn't some sort of anti-Catholic tirade."

Now 44, Williams has been steeped in Catholicism since his adoption at the age of 18 months by Rufus and Imelda Williams, a Sulzberger Junior High School teacher and a secretary at the Navy Yard. His mother, born in Louisiana and raised in Texas, came from a devout family. His father, son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, followed her into Catholicism, taking up the religion with a convert's zeal.

Williams attended Friends Central Elementary and Central High School. In seventh and eighth grades, he attended the school of his Cobbs Creek parish, St. Carthage, where each Sunday he assisted the priests at the 9 a.m. Mass. Today, the church is called St. Cyprian's, and he still attends.

Though some youngsters go to church grudgingly, Williams was an eager worshipper.

"The Catholic Church that I grew up in was basically come as you are. You didn't have to get dressed up. If it was Eagles season, everybody was wearing their Eagles sweatshirts and shirts before the game," he recalled. "It was a very welcoming place."

His affection for the church continued into adulthood. Today he is on the boards of Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia; St. Cyprian's; and the St. Martin de Porres Foundation, which develops lay leadership among African American Catholics.

In the interview Thursday, Williams praised the archdiocese for instituting reforms after the 2005 grand-jury report. Because of those changes, he said, the church, through Stradley Ronen, reported to the D.A.'s Office the allegations that led to the current indictments of Msgr. William Lynn, priests Charles F. Engelhardt and James J. Brennan, laicized clergyman Edward V. Avery, and teacher Bernard Shero.

In the end, Williams said, his Catholicism has given him insight into the world of the victims and the predators in these cases, but religion will have no bearing on the prosecution.

"This case isn't about Catholicism. This isn't about whether priests should marry . . .. This isn't about that," he said.

"This is about Father Avery, Father Brennan, Father Engelhardt, and Bernard Shero raping and sodomizing two boys. This is about Monsignor Lynn knowing that children should have been protected from this abuse and not doing enough to notify people to ensure that it wouldn't happen. That's what this case is about. It could have been Baptists. It could have been Quakers. It could have been atheists. This is about us going after pedophiles."


A Catholic grand juror

of 2003-05 reflects. Monica Yant Kinney, B1.

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or

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