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The archdiocese of Philadelphia suspended 21 priests earlier this month. They've been accused of sexually abusing minors. The move came in the wake of a scathing grand jury report. It said the archdioceses is keeping suspected priests in ministry without letting anyone know. That also raises the question, with all the safeguards the Catholic Church has put in place, how could this happen now?

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: A couple of years ago, the Philadelphia archdiocese heard about three priests who had allegedly raped two boys. They gave the priests' files to law enforcement, and a grand jury began to investigate. Then, the grand jury stumbled on a bombshell. District Attorney Seth Williams says a church employee testified that there were many other people the panel should know about.

Mr. SETH WILLIAMS (District Attorney): The grand jury found that a policy of zero tolerance was not actually in effect. And that there were many priests that had allegations made against them that were still in the active ministry.

HAGERTY: Thirty-seven priests, according to the grand jury's report released last month. After that, the archdiocese hired Gina Maisto Smith, a former prosecutor, to look closely at those priests. The church put 21 of them on administrative leave while Smith investigates further. Smith says she's seen no evidence that church officials intentionally protected sexual predators.

Ms. GINA MAISTO SMITH (Former Prosecutor): I can say with clarity that I saw the archdiocese doing what it could do within the systems that it had and making the best decisions they could under the circumstances.

HAGERTY: So, if the archdiocese was following all the right procedures, how did these priests fall through the cracks? It turns out there's a lot of play in the rules, says Terry McKiernan, president of�BishopAccountability.org, a watchdog group. He says when an allegation comes in, the bishop doesn't have to pursue it very far.

Mr. TERRY MCKIERNAN (President, BishopAccountability.org): A bishop may decide at a very early stage that an allegation is without merit. And if he does that, we never even get to the stage of a priest being removed.

HAGERTY: McKiernan believes that's what happened in Philadelphia. He notes that the archdiocese forwarded only seven of the 21 cases to its review board. That's the group of laypeople who are supposed to hear every allegation of sexual abuse and act to protect the victims.

Philadelphia may not be alone, says William Gavin. Gavin is a former FBI agent who was hired by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to audit every diocese and make sure they're preventing and reporting sexual abuse cases.

Mr. WILLIAM GAVIN (Former FBI Agent): It was an audit in quotes. I think it was more of a program review than anything else.

HAGERTY: Gavin says he could ask things like, are you doing background checks on priests and employees? But he was not allowed to look at their records.

Mr. GAVIN: We didn't have the benefit of drilling down into personnel files to see what might be there. They were off limits.

HAGERTY: Gavin's auditors had to depend on the bishop's word about whether anyone had been accused of abuse. And the questionnaire they used wouldn't have spotted the Philadelphia 21 anyway because it only asks about allegations within the past year, not older cases.

Terry McKiernan says the only way to get real answers is to have an outsider look at the priests' files.

Mr. MCKIERNAN: Wherever law enforcement actually takes a look at the situation and has access to the files, they come up with a much more drastic and much more worrisome conclusion.

HAGERTY: For example, McKiernan says in Cleveland, the diocese said that 28 priests had been accused of abuse. When a prosecutor looked at the files, he raised the�estimate to 145. When the New Hampshire attorney general looked at the files of the diocese of Manchester,�27 new names�emerged. And McKiernan has obtained a recent document from the Boston archdiocese that says there are�40 credibly accused priests�whose names are still unknown to the public.

Even critics say that most dioceses are trying to do their best at protecting victims and still giving due process to priests who may have been wrongly accused. It's a difficult line to walk, says Donna Farrell, a spokesperson for the archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Ms. DONNA FARRELL (Spokesperson, Philadelphia Archdiocese): Many people think that the archdiocese doesn't get it. We do. And the task, the job ahead of us, is to recognize where we've fallen short and to let our actions speak to our resolve.

HAGERTY: The faithful will surely be watching and so will prosecutors.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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