A day of questions at parishes affected by abuse cases

Ana Parmet and Greg Sciubba would be happy if the Rev. Paul Castellani returned to lead St. Philomena.
Ana Parmet and Greg Sciubba would be happy if the Rev. Paul Castellani returned to lead St. Philomena. (MICHAEL MATZA / Staff)
Posted: July 10, 2012

Moments before the start of Sunday's 8 a.m. Mass at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church in Chesterbrook, the Rev. Joseph Dieckhaus, clerical dean for archdiocesan parishes across northern Chester County, took to the pulpit with an important message.

"My reason for being here," he said, "is to tell you personally: Father Harris has been found suitable for ministry."

Scattered applause broke the silence in the modern brick-and-glass chapel as the 100 or so parishioners leaned forward for more information.

"What does that mean?" said Dieckhaus, acknowledging the unspoken question. "It means Father's good name has been fully restored."

The Rev. Steven Harris, 57, who led St. Isaac Jogues from 2009 to 2011, was among the 26 priests the archdiocese placed on administrative leave last year following a Philadelphia grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse and misconduct involving children.

While some priests were investigated for sexual contact, others were investigated by the archdiocese for possible violations of "ministerial behavior and boundaries," such as inappropriate language or texting, ambiguous horseplay, or serving alcohol to minors.

The church has declined to make public the details of its investigations, citing the privacy of victims and accused.

Harris was among four priests restored to active ministry on Friday by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput after a team of church investigators, led by veteran child abuse prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith, deemed the allegations against the four "unsubstantiated."

At the same time, two priests were removed based on allegations that Chaput deemed "substantiated."

On May 4, Chaput had removed five priests from ministry and restored three. The remainder of the 26 cases have yet to be resolved.

Mary Achilles, a consultant to the archdiocese, said parish restoration teams, representing the church's hierarchy, were sent Sunday to the six parishes affected in the past week to "ventilate" and "validate" their reactions to Chaput's rulings.

"This weekend is about listening," Achilles said, and also staying sensitive to the "shame and degradation that comes along with being accused, and being a victim."

The church has not said whether Harris will return to St. Isaac Jogues or go to another assignment.

While several parishioners interviewed were happy he is out from under the cloud of the church's investigation, they had mixed feelings about his possible return.

"I am glad for the guy," said Mike Connolly, a real estate investment broker from Wayne. "Still, unfortunately, there is some baggage. I hate to say it, but it's human nature. Even when someone is found innocent, there is a lingering. To get a fresh start he might need to go to another parish."

In Warrington, Bucks County, several worshippers at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church said they were saddened by the removal of the Rev. John Bowe, 64, who served for six years at the church off Route 611 before being placed on administrative leave last year.

Chaput deemed him unsuitable for ministry on Friday because of ministerial behavior and boundary violations.

"We love Father Bowe," said Rita Roley, a parishioner for 28 years and active in St. Joseph's youth ministry. "He was a mentor for a lot of people, young and old. He was an incredible man."

At St. Philomena Roman Catholic Church in Lansdowne, Delaware County, parishioners kept silent as they absorbed the news, delivered by the Rev. James Paradis, an archdiocese representative, that the Rev. Paul Castellani, 53, who led the parish from 2008 until his suspension last year, had been deemed suitable for ministry this week too.

The 104-year-old Gothic-style church on East Baltimore Avenue has an aging congregation that has been struggling to hold on against an expected decision in the coming year about whether to close it.

Parishioners Greg Sciubba and Ana Parmet said they would be very happy if the archdiocese decided to send Castellani back to lead them.

Since Castellani's suspension, the Rev. Jason Kulczynski has led the parish as its parochial administrator.

In his homily Sunday, Kulczynski spoke of the sex abuse scandal and "a terrible scar created by a betrayal of trust." He said that victims "resent not only those who harmed them, but also those who failed to protect them."

He said that "the wound in our community will take a long time heal" and that "the terrible reality is that no matter how hard we try there will always be some elements of truth that are impossible to find."

Acknowledging that parishes across the region are struggling to find consensus and that not everyone at St. Philomena's shares his feelings about wanting Castellani to return, Sciubba said the parish faces a challenge.

"I will respect them," he said. "Will they respect my joy at his coming back?"


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Bill Reed contributed to this article.

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