Chaput says Philadelphia school closings concern parishioners most

he'll wait for a report due in December before coming up with a plan for schools. He also said he was wary of expanding the statute of limitations in abuse cases.
he'll wait for a report due in December before coming up with a plan for schools. He also said he was wary of expanding the statute of limitations in abuse cases. (Archbishop Charles J. Chaput says)
Posted: October 28, 2011

Though the clergy sex-abuse scandal has done "great damage" to the Roman Catholic Church and limited its ability to "speak confidently on other issues," Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said anxiety about parish school closings - not abuse - was "the biggest issue people have contacted me about" since he arrived six weeks ago.

But, Chaput told The Inquirer Editorial Board on Thursday, he won't begin charting any plan of action until he receives a report on the archdiocesan school system that is due in December.

He is "open," he said, to Gov. Corbett's proposed state-funded vouchers to help low-income families pay private school tuition.

Vouchers could "help us help poor kids," he said.

It was his first conversation with the board since he was installed as head of the 1.5 million-member archdiocese Sept. 8.

Though he is still learning the geography of his new archdiocese - he groped momentarily to remember the name of Independence Mall - he said he was struck by how passionately local Catholics identify with their parishes and schools. He said he had not encountered that in Denver, where he was archbishop for 14 years.

He added that he was eager to meet with Mayor Nutter to discuss how city schools and the archdiocese might "cooperate [on education] in ways that respect the separation of church and state."

Questioned at some length about the local clergy sex-abuse scandal, the 67-year-old archbishop said it was taking longer than he expected for a special archdiocesan team to investigate allegations against 27 priests accused of inappropriate behavior with minors.

His predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, placed most of those priests on administrative leave in March after a grand jury accused the archdiocese of failing to investigate allegations against three dozen priests.

Chaput said he did not know when he would begin to decide which priests to restore to ministry. "I will do my best to resolve it as soon as I can," but he said he had not decided whether to inform parishioners of the charges against accused priests.

He raised the issue of statutes of limitation and said he was wary of efforts to expand the right of sex-abuse victims to sue for assaults committed decades ago.

Statutes restricting the time in which lawsuits can be filed "are a good idea or we wouldn't have them," he said.

Twice during his tenure in Denver, Chaput led a broad coalition to defeat a proposal that would have temporarily allowed abuse victims in Colorado to sue their assailants, no matter when the assaults occurred.

Chaput told the board any changes in Pennsylvania's statute of limitations would have to be "for the good of the community as a whole," and that he "would not want the Catholic Church treated any differently."

Many states, including Pennsylvania, limit the right of victims to sue public schools and charitable institutions. In Colorado, Chaput encouraged school districts, teachers' unions, scouts, and youth sport leagues to fight the proposed window.

Opening a window here could have "consequences for the services the church offers to the poor," he said, adding that the archdiocese's financial assets belong to its members, who "expect me to be steward of our resources."

"Why have a statute of limitations if you're not going to use it?" he asked the board, which has urged state lawmakers to allow all abuse victims an opportunity to sue.

Pennsylvania law now gives abuse victims until age 50 to sue their assailants, provided the civil statute of limitations on those crimes never expired. Advocates for victims complain that many cannot sue because, until recently, the law gave victims only until age 18 to file suit. They argue it can take victims decades to grasp the severity of their emotional injuries.

In response to other questions, Chaput said that, contrary to public perception, the Catholic hierarchy was vocal on many other public policy issues besides abortion. "It is impossible to justify the death penalty," he said.

The great size of the bureaucracy he has inherited surprised him, he said, but he conceded that the archdiocese's age and size may explain it. Still, he added, "I'm in favor of eliminating bureaucracy. The church is about preaching the gospel and working for the common good."

He also said he was unprepared for the record rainfall he had encountered here since leaving Denver, which gets about 300 days of sunshine annually.

Nevertheless, he said he found Philadelphia a charming place and couldn't imagine why people move away. Later, he said that although he never expected to be archbishop of Philadelphia, he was very happy to be here.


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

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