PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The Philadelphia archdiocese on Tuesday suspended 21 Roman Catholic priests who were named as child molestation suspects in a scathing grand jury report last month, a move that comes more than eight years after U.S. bishops pledged swift action to keep potential abusers away from young people.
The priests have been removed from ministry while their cases are reviewed, Cardinal Justin Rigali said. The names of the priests were not being released, a spokesman for the archdiocese said.
"These have been difficult weeks since the release of the grand jury report," Rigali said in a statement. "Difficult most of all for victims of sexual abuse but also for all Catholics and for everyone in our community."
The two-year grand jury investigation into priest abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia resulted in charges against two priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher who are accused of raping young boys. And in an unprecedented move in the U.S., a former high-ranking church official was accused of transferring problem priests to new parishes without warning anyone of prior sex-abuse complaints.
Since 2002, when the national abuse crisis erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston, American dioceses have barred hundreds of accused clergy from public church work or removed the men permanently from the priesthood. The allegations against the Pennsylvania priests stand out because they come years after the U.S. bishops reformed their national child protection policies, promising to keep potential abusers from children.
The grand jury named 37 priests who remained in active ministry despite credible allegations of sexual abuse. After the release of the report, the second such investigation in the city in six years, Rigali vowed to take its calls for further reforms seriously.
Besides the 21 priests placed on leave Tuesday, three others named by the grand jury were suspended a week after the report's release in February. There were five other priests who would have been suspended: one who was already on leave, two who are "incapacitated and have not been in active ministry" and two who no longer are priests in the archdiocese but are now members of another religious order that was not identified.
"The archdiocese has notified the superiors of their religious orders and the bishops of the dioceses where they are residing," the cardinal said.
The remaining eight priests of the 37 in the report were not being put on leave because the latest examination of their cases "found no further investigation is warranted," Rigali said.
"I know that for many people their trust in the church has been shaken," Rigali stated. "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 2005, a grand jury said that there was evidence of abuse by at least 63 priests and that church officials had transferred offenders to other parishes and dioceses. While the archdiocese then formed a panel to handle abuse complaints, the 2011 grand jury found it mostly worked to protect the church, not the victims.
Rigali responded by retaining former city child-abuse prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith to re-examine complaints made against the active-duty priests that internal church investigators previously said they could not substantiate.
"Cardinal Rigali's actions are as commendable as they are unprecedented, and they reflect his concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of those in his care," District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement. "We appreciate that the Archdiocese has acknowledged the value of the report, and seen fit to take some of the steps called for by the grand jury."
The suspensions came on the eve of Lent, the Christian period for penance leading up to Easter.
Peter Isely, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Rigali should have suspended the priests much sooner.
"There's a simple reason that dozens of credibly accused child molesters have recklessly been kept in unsuspecting parishes for years, instead of being promptly suspended. It's because Rigali and his top aides want it that way," he said. "They have taken and still take steps to protect, above all else, themselves, their secrets and their staff, instead of their flock. That's what two separate Philadelphia grand juries, working with two prosecutors, after two long investigations, found over the last six years."
Rigali's move to suspend the priests "was forced on him by the Philadelphia grand jury report, and is an act of desperation, not transparency," Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org said.
"In Philadelphia, a Catholic official had to be indicted before the archdiocese finally began to comply with its own policies," he said. "We have no reason to believe that Philadelphia is unusual - in other U.S. dioceses, credibly accused priests are no doubt still in ministry, and review boards are protecting priests instead of protecting children."