Head of Philly priest sex-abuse review panel criticizes her church leaders

Cardinal Justin Rigali and his bishops "failed miserably at being open and transparent," Ana Maria Catanzaro contends.
Cardinal Justin Rigali and his bishops "failed miserably at being open and transparent," Ana Maria Catanzaro contends. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 14, 2011

The chairwoman of the panel that reviews clergy sex-abuse cases for the Philadelphia Archdiocese has lashed out at Cardinal Justin Rigali and his bishops, accusing them of having "failed miserably at being open and transparent" about the misdeeds of their priests.

Mired in an "culture of clericalism" that esteems the ordained over the laity, the local hierarchy has been so focused on protecting the church's image and preventing lawsuits that it has been blinded to victims' suffering, Ana Maria Catanzaro said in an interview Friday.

A nurse who has served eight years on the archdiocesan review board, Catanzaro was elaborating on a sharply critical article she wrote for the current issue of the Catholic biweekly Commonweal.

Only after a Philadelphia grand jury report in February excoriated both the board and hierarchy for shielding accused priests, she said, did the panel members discover that most cases had been kept from them.

"The board was under the impression that we were reviewing every abuse allegation received by the archdiocese," she wrote.

In the interview, she added that "somebody or some group" was withholding cases. "We still don't know who."

The grand jury report asserted that 37 clergymen in active ministry had been credibly accused of abuse or other inappropriate behavior with minors. However, Catanzaro said, only 10 of those cases came before her board, which found none of the accusations to be provable.

"No one was more surprised than we were" that those cases were only a fraction of the complaints lodged, she said.

Catanzaro said she and her fellow board members were so upset by the grand jury's criticisms, and the bishops' failure to defend them, that they contemplated resigning en masse in March. They decided to stay on, she said, "because we had nothing to be ashamed of, and because we felt we still had a lot to contribute."

Following the grand jury report, Rigali placed 28 priests on administrative leave. An independent team of investigators, hired by the archdiocese and led by former sex-crimes prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith, is reviewing those cases.

Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Friday that the church's response to abuse allegations had "evolved over the years," but "there is clearly much more to do."

She noted that Rigali had recently appointed Albert Toczydlowski, a former deputy district attorney in Philadelphia, to review the archdiocese's policies and procedures regarding abuse allegations.

Toczydlowski will supervise all investigations and turn over the findings to the review board "in a timely fashion," Farrell said, but only after law-enforcement authorities have completed their own inquiries.

Catanzaro, who also serves on the national review board that advises the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on abuse matters, said other dioceses have been quicker to reform.

In one of her harshest attacks in Commonweal, Catanzaro wrote, "If Philadelphia's bishops had authentically followed their call to live the gospel, they would have acted differently."

In many other dioceses, Catanzaro noted in the article, review boards are expected to determine whether an accused priest molested a minor "and then make a recommendation about his suitability for ministry."

But the Philadelphia hierarchy focused more on whether an accused priest had violated church law, whose language she described as stilted and vague.

As an example, she wrote, review board members in Philadelphia were not expected to determine whether it appeared that an accused priest had molested a child. Rather, they were asked to consider whether he committed "an offense against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor."

"That's the commandment about adultery," she said in the interview.

She concluded her article with several recommendations, not only to the Philadelphia Archdiocese but also to the 194 other Roman or Eastern-rite Catholic dioceses in the United States. Among them:

A priest credibly accused of abuse should be placed on leave immediately, pending an investigation by a review board or civil authorities.

Dioceses should refer to review boards any allegation of inappropriate behavior with a minor. Review boards should have access to all information regarding an accused priest's past behavior and mental-health issues.

Review boards need clearer standards to determine what counts as sexual abuse.

Returning credibly accused priests to supervised ministry rarely works, since they are difficult to monitor.

Religious orders should report the results of any investigations of their priests to the local bishop.

Dioceses should publish an annual report that includes the number of allegations received; how many were referred to the review board; the names of clerics against whom allegations were substantiated or found credible; the standards used to review the allegations; the whereabouts of priests permanently removed from ministry; and any changes in the process for reviewing allegations.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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