Fate of accused priests to be revealed Friday

Archbishop Charles Chaput met with several hundred priests behind closed doors at Cardinal O’Hara High School. CHARLES FOX / Staff
Archbishop Charles Chaput met with several hundred priests behind closed doors at Cardinal O’Hara High School. CHARLES FOX / Staff
Posted: May 04, 2012

Signaling an end to an investigation that stretched past a year, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput on Friday will announce the fates of parish priests suspended over allegations that they sexually abused or acted inappropriately around minors.

At least a dozen of the 27 affected priests are scheduled to learn the outcome of their cases in private meetings with Chaput on Thursday and Friday, according to a source familiar with the process but not authorized to publicly discuss it.

Insiders predict that only a few of those priests will be cleared of wrongdoing and restored to ministry, the source said. The ones who are not reinstated could be defrocked or choose to remain priests under a supervised life of prayer and penance.

The archbishop will disclose his decisions at a 2 p.m. news conference Friday at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Center City headquarters, church officials confirmed.

Chaput shared a preview of the process during a meeting Wednesday with hundreds of archdiocesan priests. But he and many clergy who gathered at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County, declined to discuss his remarks. One priest leaving the meeting, who said he was a hospital chaplain, said the archbishop didn’t tell the priests how many of the priests on leave would be reinstated but added, “I can’t talk about it.”

Chaput declined an interview request. Kenneth Gavin, the deputy communications director for the archdiocese, said the archbishop characterized this as a private time between him and his clergy.

The developments mark the first public step by the archdiocese to recover from one of its darkest chapters. The mass suspension last year was unprecedented in the decade since the clergy sex abuse scandal first erupted and it threw the archdiocese and its priests and parishioners into turmoil.

Chaput’s predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, suspended 27 priests in the weeks after a February 2011 grand jury report accused church officials of ignoring “credible” allegations of sexual misconduct by priests.

The names of the priests on leave seeped into public view, but the accusations against most of them never have, creating clouds of suspicion and uncertainty that have lingered for more than a year.

Archdiocesan officials said only that some of the allegations involved sexual abuse, while others involved so-called “boundary issues” like inappropriate sex talk or conduct, and that all had previously been investigated, typically by the archdiocesan review board. That panel, composed mainly of lay people, reviews allegations that are usually too old to be prosecuted and recommends action by the archbishop.

The grand jury report cited three review board decisions that caused it to question the church’s commitment to protecting victims. In one, the Rev. Stephen Perzan was allowed to keep his ministry after he failed a lie-detector exam about claims that he molested two boys in the 1990s at St. Gabriel’s Hall, a delinquent home where Perzan worked.

The report also said the review board decided it couldn’t substantiate claims by a Bristol, Bucks County, man that the Rev. Joseph Gallagher repeatedly assaulted him when he was an altar boy at St. Mark’s Church in Bristol. According to the grand jury report, Gallagher had been previously accused of a similar allegation, and at least one former altar boy told investigators that the priest had “improper relationships” with minors, but wouldn’t elaborate.

A third priest, the Rev. Joseph DiGregorio, was accused of failing a polygraph exam over allegations that he molested a teenage girl in the late 1960s. DiGregorio has been the only accused and suspended priest to publicly respond to the allegation, repeatedly denying it.

Rigali hired a former Philadelphia sex-crimes prosecutor, Gina Maisto Smith, from the Ballard Spahr law firm to reexamine the claims and see if any were mishandled. That investigation stretched more than a year, compounded by Riglali’s departure and the arrival of Chaput as the leader of the 1.5 million member archdiocese.

For months, Catholics and clergy throughout the region have waited for signs on the cases, particularly to see how much Chaput reveals and how the church will treat exonerated priests or victims it now deems credible. Supporters of the suspended priests have complained that they were hastily ordered to leave their church-owned residences and barred from publicly ministering and spent months without any signs or contact from the diocese.

Victims’ advocates have attacked the church for not moving sooner or more forcefully or transparently against accused priests. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) renewed that criticism Wednesday as news spread that Chaput was preparing to act.

“Chaput has recklessly kept kids in harm’s way by sitting on most of these decisions for months,” the group said in a statement. “At the outset, we said that citizens and Catholics need and deserve to know as soon as possible whether church officials consider each allegation credible.”

Contact John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or at jmartin@phillynews.com. Follow him @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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