Fates of suspended priests still in limbo

Philadelphia Inquirer/March 6, 2012

Sacred Heart is a tightly knit Catholic parish in Swedesburg, a working-class town across the Schuylkill from Norristown.

Ethnic roots run deep at the century-old church. It's the kind of place that still offers a monthly Mass in Polish, where parishioners linger on Sunday mornings to chat after the final hymn.

That's when Bernard Gutkowski, president of the parish men's group, typically gets the question: What do you hear about Father Andy? His reply rarely changes. Not much.

Father Andy is the Rev. Andrew McCormick, Sacred Heart's pastor since 2004 and a priest Gutkowski credits with reinvigorating the church.

Then, in a blink last March, McCormick was gone.

Thursday marks a year since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia abruptly removed him and 20 priests across the region from ministry and pledged to reexamine past accusations that they had sexually abused or acted inappropriately around children.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, then leader of the 1.5 million-member archdiocese, ordered their removal after a Philadelphia grand jury recommended charges against four current and former priests and accused the church of letting dozens more stay in ministry despite questionable conduct.

The wave of suspensions in a single diocese - the list ultimately grew to 27 priests - was unprecedented in the decade since the clergy sex-abuse scandal erupted. So, too, has been the aftermath.

Archdiocesan officials have been virtually silent about the priests' status or details of the allegations that led to their suspensions. A confidential investigation they once predicted might take six months has already lasted twice as long.

In December, new Archbishop Charles J. Chaput wrote in his newsletter that he expected the cases to be resolved "in the first months of 2012." Twice in January, church officials signaled such announcements were looming, but they have yet to make them.

For the priests on leave, their counterparts left in ministry, and thousands of Catholics in affected parishes from Sellersville to Wayne and West Chester, the last 12 months have been baffling.

"He's frustrated," Gutkowski said of McCormick, whom he talks to regularly. "He doesn't know what's going on. We don't know what's going on."

As they have done for months, archdiocesan officials declined last week to discuss the priests or their review. Donna Farrell, a spokeswoman for Chaput, said to do so would violate a gag order issued by the judge overseeing the forthcoming trial of two priests and a former priest. (The archdiocese is not a defendant, but many of its employees and priests could be witnesses.)

In January, church administrators met at St. Pius X in Broomall to brief pastors and school principals affected by the suspensions, according to one priest who attended and a second person briefed on the meeting.

Dates were discussed, and some left believing the archdiocese would announce the priests' fate by the first Sunday of Lent.

Clergy abuse, sexual abuse, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Roman Catholic Chuch

That was a week ago.

Also in January, an archdiocesan lawyer, Robert Welsh, told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina he would ask her to lift the gag order before the March 26 trial for an announcement about the priests on leave. Welsh didn't elaborate then or return a call and e-mail requesting comment last week.

Joe Maher, a Detroit businessman who runs a national support network for priests, said some of the suspended clerics had told him they hoped to meet privately with Chaput before he decided their fates. According to Maher, those priests requests' have gone unheeded. They don't know what to expect next, or when.

"They don't know what the process is," Maher said.

From the outset, the allegations and suspensions have been cloaked in mystery. The February 2011 grand jury report accused the archdiocese of mishandling or failing to pursue "credible" misconduct complaints against 37 priests. It named only three of them.

Conceding that the report had "shaken" many Catholics' trust in the church, Rigali acted swiftly. He suspended the three identified in the report, as well as Msgr. William J. Lynn, a Downingtown pastor and former archdiocesan administrator accused of child endangerment for allegedly enabling predatory priests.

Rigali also hired a former sex-crimes prosecutor, Gina Maisto Smith, to oversee an internal investigation into the grand jury allegations.

Weeks later, 21 more priests were placed on leave, in some cases given just hours to leave their rectories. Two more suspensions followed later that month.

The archdiocese has never disclosed details of the complaints, and it acknowledged the priests' names only in letters read at individual parishes.

Smith, a lawyer at Ballard Spahr L.L.P., said over the summer the allegations ranged from sexual assault to "boundary issues," such as giving presents, talking about sex, or sharing pornography with minors. She has since declined requests for comment.

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