Chaput reinstates priest removed over 1960s allegations

Posted: October 17, 2012

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Monday that he had reinstated a Philadelphia priest whose case city prosecutors cited as proof that the archdiocese failed to properly investigate clergy sex abuse or misconduct.

The Rev. Joseph DiGregorio had been accused of molesting a teenage girl in the late 1960s. His case was a focal point of the scathing 2011 grand jury report about the handling of abuse cases by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and he was among the first of 26 priests placed on leave as church officials reexamined allegations against them.

But DiGregorio's case stood out for other reasons. The allegations were among the oldest against any cleric, and were leveled by a single accuser. He was also the only suspended priest to publicly deny wrongdoing.

Noting the public attention to the case, Chaput said the archdiocese enlisted more than 20 child-abuse experts to review it. The examiners concluded that DiGregorio had violated church standards for priests' behavior, but also found "compelling evidence" that he was suitable to return to ministry, Chaput said.

Citing policy, the archbishop declined to explain the violations. But his decision was "based on the facts of Father DiGregorio's case, a thorough external investigation, the fact that no other complaints were reported in an atmosphere where the public was largely aware of the situation, and that thorough clinical evaluations from competent outside authorities indicate he poses no danger to minors," Chaput said.

DiGregorio is the eighth cleric from the group placed on leave to be allowed to resume his public duties as a priest. He is the only one restored despite being found to have violated the church's behavior standards for priests.

Seven others have been permanently barred from ministry, and one died before the review of his case was complete. Also, the Rev. Andrew McCormick is awaiting a criminal trial in the alleged sexually assault of a 10-year-old altar boy in 1997.

DiGregorio's reinstatement was first announced over the weekend in two Philadelphia churches he served in the last decade, Stella Maris and St. Martin of Tours.

The priest declined to comment Monday. His lawyer, Gregory Pagano, said DiGregorio was grateful to be reinstated and looked forward to someday returning to a parish - he wasn't sure which one - but would be forever hurt by the allegations.

"It's unfortunate that he was even implicated by the taint of this investigation," Pagano said. "It had no merit, it has no merit. . . . And his lifelong commitment to good work will forever be tainted, to some extent."

The woman who leveled the accusation said she was stunned when an archdiocesan official told her of Chaput's decision.

"This is just an example of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and how they cover up for the priests," said Barbara Dellavecchia, speaking publicly for the first time. "He abused me. Everything in that grand jury report is true."

The report said that DiGregorio's accuser - named in the document under the pseudonym Donna - contacted the archdiocese in 2005 and reported that she had been abused by two priests at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in West Philadelphia in the late 1960s. One, William Santry, confessed to misconduct and was removed from the priesthood.

The other was DiGregorio, who Dellavecchia claimed had molested her in a car and at the rectory, "kissing her, removing her bra, lying on top of her, and fondling her breasts," the report said.

In an interview, Dellavecchia, now 62, said she kept the abuse secret until about a decade ago, when it emerged during counseling.

"I never felt free to say anything while my parents were still alive because I didn't want to upset them," she said. "Plus, I was trying to handle it on my own, and I wasn't succeeding at it."

Her claim landed in 2006 before the archdiocese's Review Board, the independent body that examines allegations of clerical misconduct and recommends action to the archbishop. According to the grand jury report, the priest agreed to take a lie-detector test, and it "indicated that Father DiGregorio was being deceptive when he said that he did not fondle Donna in his car and his bedroom."

In March 2006, the review board first deemed that Dellavecchia's allegation against DiGregorio was credible, citing the consistency of her claim, the confession from the other priest, and what the board said was the inconclusive result of DiGregorio's polygraph.

Three weeks later, the board noted that all of its members had not been present for the first vote and voted again. This time, it declared the claim was not substantiated and recommended no action against DiGregorio.

He became one of three priests whose cases were highlighted by prosecutors as examples of how they said the archdiocese let priests remain in ministry despite credible accusations of abuse.

DiGregorio, a former military chaplain, fired back and publicly vowed to fight. "I'm not hiding anything," he told The Inquirer last year. "I didn't do this."

The priest's lawyer said Monday that he was unsure which standards his client was found to have violated.

Chaput said his decision followed recommendations from the review board and a team of investigators overseen by Gina Maisto Smith of the Ballard Spahr law firm. "All cases are unique and contain various factors that require careful consideration," the archbishop said. "This one was no exception."

There is no indication when the rest of the cases will be resolved. Three remain under review by local law enforcement agencies, the archdiocese said.

Even the ones already settled by the archbishop might not be over. At least four of the priests who have been permanently removed from ministry have appealed the decisions to Rome, according to a source familiar with the cases.


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


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