Cleric says he was duped into aiding priest's transfer

Posted: April 21, 2011

A former Catholic regional vicar, who helped transfer a priest with a long history of sexual-abuse claims into a South Philadelphia parish, now says he did so unwittingly, and blames church officials for withholding information.

Msgr. John T. Conway said officials failed to share their knowledge of at least a dozen abuse complaints against the now-defrocked David C. Sicoli at the time of the 1999 transfer. As a result, Sicoli was placed alone in a parish with an active youth ministry and school.

In a letter sent to Cardinal Justin Rigali this month, Conway said thinking back on the situation makes him "angry as hell." He is now pastor at Mary, Mother of the Redeemer Church in North Wales, Montgomery County.

"I did not contribute in any way to the shameful and sinful cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests," the April 4 letter reads. "We regional vicars . . . were kept in the dark about such crimes."

The letter - circulated widely this week among Conway's parishioners - is a rare instance of rank-and-file clergy openly criticizing archdiocesan officials for their handling of the sex-abuse scandal. A copy was forwarded to The Inquirer.

Conway did not respond to calls for comment on the letter Thursday. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia declined to discuss the matter except to say Rigali had received it.

The dispute it outlines centers on Conway's role in overseeing South Philadelphia parishes in the late 1990s. His duties included serving on a priest personnel board that made decisions on the transfer of clergy into his region.

By the time Sicoli's case came before Conway in 1999, the priest's archdiocesan file already detailed "a long history of abusive and manipulative relationships with adolescents, as well as numerous reports from other priests about those relationships," according to a 2005 report by a Philadelphia grand jury investigating church sex abuse.

Sicoli had previously been a parish priest in Philadelphia, Ambler, Levittown, and Yeadon, and for a time was associate director of the church's Philadelphia youth program.

After reports of his suspicious activity at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Philadelphia, the matter of his transfer came before the panel.

The church's own review board would later connect him to at least 11 credible allegations of abuse - ranging from accusations of forced oral sex to mutual masturbation - before he was defrocked in 2008.

But even as Conway and others were considering where to place Sicoli in 1999, his file contained allegations dating back as far as 1977 that he kept boys with him in the rectory overnight and formed inappropriate attachments with many young parishioners, the 2005 grand jury report said.

According to the grand jury, Msgr. William J. Lynn - then Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua's secretary for the clergy - advised Bevilacqua that he and Conway believed Sicoli would be "better off in a one-man parish," leaving him without supervision from others.

They eventually agreed to place him at South Philadelphia's Holy Spirit Parish.

But in his letter to Rigali this month, Conway said that he, at least, had been kept in the dark about allegations against Sicoli while making the decision. The 2005 report mentions Conway's involvement at least six times in its 418 pages of findings.

"I feel that I was duped," he wrote.

Conway said he felt the need to explain his involvement with Sicoli to his current parishioners in light of another grand jury report this year that condemned church officials as failing to adequately investigate abuse claims against their own.

The archdiocese has suspended 29 priests since last month, and four current and former priests - including Lynn - and a former parochial-school teacher face criminal charges that they either abused children or helped to cover it up.

Conway was quick to point out that his name appears nowhere in the latest grand jury findings. And although his public criticism is unusual, he said in his letter that he felt he needed to speak out in an effort to rebuild trust between his parishioners and the church.

He urged Rigali to do the same, inviting him to visit the church and speak openly about the archdiocese's response to allegations that have already hit the parish hard.

The parish's parochial vicar between 2000 and 2002, the Rev. Francis Gallagher, was one of the priests accused of abusing children by the 2005 grand jury.

Before coming to North Wales, he had been arrested for soliciting sex from two men, 18 and 20, in Sea Isle City, N.J., and admitted sexually abusing two brothers, the grand jury found.

Last year, the archdiocese announced that Msgr. Joseph Logrip, a former high school chaplain and parish pastor, would join Mary, Mother of the Redeemer. Only he never arrived. He was among the 29 suspended last month. The archdiocese declined to discuss the allegations against him.

"On behalf of suffering Catholics of this area, I am asking you to arrange to meet with your people," Conway's letter to Rigali reads. "Speak to them about regaining the trust of their bishop."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or at jroebuck@phillynews.com.

 

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