In an action of unprecedented scope in the Roman Catholic Church nationwide, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Tuesday that it was putting 21 priests on administrative leave because of allegations that they sexually abused or behaved improperly with minors.
The archdiocese said it was responding to the Feb. 10 report by a Philadelphia grand jury that found that 37 local priests were serving in ministry despite accusations of questionable behavior.
"I know that for many people, their trust in the church has been shaken," Cardinal Justin Rigali said in a statement Tuesday. "I pray that the efforts of the archdiocese to address these cases of concern and to re-evaluate our way of handling allegations will help rebuild that trust in truth and justice."
Church officials did not identify the priests, but said that on Wednesday and again this weekend, they will inform the parishes and other "affected communities" where the priests worked.
Advocates for abuse victims were quick to condemn the archdiocese for not revealing the priests' names.
"It is outrageously reckless and callous for Rigali to continue hiding the names of predator priests," said Joelle Casteix, a regional director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
Not all the priests were in active ministry before they were removed, according to archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Farrell, who said one was on leave and two were incapacitated. The affected priests are not permitted to live or work in parishes, say Mass, or administer sacraments while on leave.
Rigali said the leaves were "interim measures" while the archdiocese reviews the cases, and "not in any way final determinations or judgments" on the priests.
District Attorney Seth Williams commended church leaders for responding swiftly to the grand jury report. "Cardinal Rigali's actions ... reflect his concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of those in his care," Williams said.
Terence McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability.org, which tracks clergy abuse cases around the nation, called Rigali's response "an act of desperation, not transparency," that was "forced on (the cardinal) by the Philadelphia grand jury report."
Both McKiernan and David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, said they knew of no religious institution in the United States that had ever removed so many of its clergy so abruptly for reasons related to sex abuse.
Last month, the archdiocese placed on leave three priests who the grand jury said had been allowed to remain in active ministry despite credible allegations of child sexual abuse.
In its report, the grand jury said an archdiocesan employee had testified that at least 37 priests remained in ministry despite what the panel called a "substantial evidence of abuse."
While the archdiocese did not turn over the personnel files of all 37 priests, the grand jury said that the files it did see suggested that church officials had repeatedly dismissed credible abuse allegations on flimsy pretexts, such as a victim's misremembering the layout of a rectory or the year in which a priest served in a parish.
"We understand that accusations are not proof," the grand jury wrote, "but we just cannot understand the archdiocese's apparent absence of any sense of urgency."
An accused priest is sometimes allowed to remain in ministry if he denies committing an assault and a diocese has no way of corroborating an allegation.
On the day the grand jury report was released, Rigali issued a brief response saying "there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them."
Six days later, he hired lawyer Gina Maisto Smith, a former sex crimes prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office, to review the personnel files of all priests named in the grand jury's report.
Smith's preliminary review served as the basis for deciding which priests should be put on leave.
The grand jury report also recommended criminal charges against two priests, a defrocked priest, and a parochial teacher with raping two altar boys in the 1990s.
Prosecutors also charged the Rev. William J. Lynn, former secretary for clergy in the archdiocese, on two felony counts of endangering the welfare of children for recommending the parish assignments of two of those priests despite evidence they had abused minors.
Smith, a lawyer with Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, said Tuesday that she had worked "around the clock" to review the files and personnel records of the priests identified in the grand jury report, but had conducted no interviews with them.
She said she had put together a team of experts on child abuse to assist her in the next phase of review, which will include recommendations to Rigali as to who should be permanently removed.
Farrell said the timing of the announcement was apt: "It's all the more significant coming on the eve of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, when we look inward, when we take a deep, hard look at ourselves."
(Inquirer staff writer John Martin contributed to this article.)