How Abuse By Priests Can Go Undetected In Philadelphia, 21 Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse of minors slipped through the cracks. But with all the safeguards the Roman Catholic Church put into place after the sex abuse scandal in 2002, how could this happen? It turns out that there's a lot of play in those rules.
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How Priests Accused Of Abuse Can Go Undetected

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How Priests Accused Of Abuse Can Go Undetected

How Priests Accused Of Abuse Can Go Undetected

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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.

SETH WILLIAMS: 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.

BRADLEY 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.

GINA MAISTO SMITH: 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.

BRADLEY 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, a watchdog group. He says when an allegation comes in, the bishop doesn't have to pursue it very far.

TERRY MCKIERNAN: 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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: 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.

WILLIAM GAVIN: It was an audit in quotes. I think it was more of a program review than anything else.

BRADLEY 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.

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

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

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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: 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.

DONNA FARRELL: 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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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