The archbishop of Philadelphia has suspended 21 priests connected to allegations of child sex abuse, the latest in a series of actions by the archdiocese to deal with findings in a disturbing grand jury report released last month.
The grand jury report accused a monsignor, three priests and a parochial schoolteacher of abusing kids or failing to prevent abuse by others. It also said that as many as 37 priests remained in active ministry with allegations or reports of inappropriate behavior or sexual abuse of minors.
Cardinal Justin Rigali said in a statement that he's sorry for the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse and is determined to work for a solution that deals effectively with the issue in the church.
Rigali added that he knows many people's trust in the church has been shaken, and that he prays that the efforts of the archdiocese to address these cases and re-evaluate how it handles such allegations will help rebuild that trust in truth and justice.
To review the cases of accused priests in active ministry, the archdiocese brought on Gina Maisto Smith, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who prosecuted child sexual assault cases.
"I conducted, with my team and the assistance of a forensic psychiatrist, the initial review, and I made recommendations to the cardinal based on that initial review, and he accepted those recommendations," she said.
Maisto Smith will now lead a team of experts to investigate each of the cases, to determine whether the priests should be returned to ministry or removed.
In addition to the 21 priests suspended Tuesday, three others were placed on administrative leave after the report was released in February. The archdiocese says eight priests were not placed on leave because the initial independent examination of the cases found no further investigation is warranted.
The archdiocese's move is a "long overdue and welcomed step," says David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. But "it's only a very partial first step."
"It would be incredibly naive for anybody to think that a mere suspension of these men somehow signifies a new day in the archdiocese," Clohessy says.
"Anytime a credibly accused child molester is publicly identified or suspended, kids are safer. However, it's crucial to remember that the grand jury found widespread fault and deceit and recklessness by church officials."
But Patrick Wall, a former Roman Catholic priest who is now a canon lawyer in California, says the grand jury report and the moves by the archdiocese mark a historic moment.
"This report takes it to another level because they go after the vicar for clergy — that person who has the authority of the Archbishop Justin Rigali to handle priest affairs and priest assignments, and that person now is being called to justice," says Wall, who has worked on priest sex abuse cases across the country.
He says the situation in Philadelphia could have ripple effects on litigation nationwide.
"It really does change the face of things, because not only can we look to the bishop or the religious superior, but now we can specifically look at how different lower, midlevel managers could be charged with child endangerment," Wall says.