Catholics in Crisis: Sex and Deception in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

As the Archdiocese reels from a second grand jury report detailing its cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, the local church faces the biggest crisis in its history. How could a spiritual institution turn a blind eye to evil not just once, but twice? The answer lies in the story of the two men who’ve led the Catholic Church in Philadelphia for the past 25 years

“When you spend that much time in the Vatican,” a St. Louis priest said of Rigali a decade ago, “you’re like one of the Bernini columns, just one of many holding up the place. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.” Rigali is gentle and caring, quick to show up at the bedside of an ailing priest. But he is not dynamic. “Justin Rigali wouldn’t have enough inner authority to say in a homily, ‘Love your neighbor,’” said the priest. “He would say, ‘As the Pope said when he was in Toronto: Love your neighbor.’”

Bishop Danny Thomas was presented to me by the archdiocese to speak for Rigali, high up in the archdiocese office building.

The bishop is a pleasant and very healthy-looking man; he is 53 years old, with short, swept-back stark-white hair and stunningly white teeth. Thomas grew up in Manayunk and worked under Rigali during part of the almost two decades he himself spent at the Vatican. I first ask what his reaction was to the 2005 grand jury report.

Bishop Thomas asks that his answer not be quoted directly, but he allows me to capture his thinking:

Thomas first notes that molesting children is a horrible sin and then spends some time making another, broader point: The Church and society in general were on a learning curve on this issue, he says. Psychologists themselves didn’t know what pedophilia was, precisely, or how to deal with it. He says that psychologists would treat an accused priest and sometimes conclude that he could go back into ministry. It was a learning curve, the bishop concludes, that all of society was on.

Certainly, Thomas is right: We know more now. But I remember a SNAP meeting at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Philadelphia back in February. Eight or 10 victims stood and told their stories. Their suffering began when they were molested, often when they were quite young, by a priest. But there was another problem just as devastating: Their church turned away from them, denied their claims, offered no help; in fact, the Church often took down their statements to use against them in case they would sue, which made victims feel violated all over again. Meanwhile, the priests went right on ministering to children. All that is in the 2005 grand jury report, with this year’s report detailing more of the same.

At this point, victims, their families and parishioners are beside themselves with confusion and rage over how their church could be so morally bereft, could turn away from this crisis and let it continue. To say that the Church was on a learning curve, as Bishop Thomas does in speaking for Cardinal Rigali, simply doesn’t cut it.

I ask Bishop Thomas about anger among diocesan priests toward the hierarchy for its handling of this crisis—toward, that is, people in his position.

He brags about the large turnout of diocesan priests on Holy Thursday, preceding Easter, at the Mass traditionally held for priests to renew their vows. Three hundred fifty priests, Thomas says, turned out—a good showing.

Was it more than last year?

No, he says, but it was significant.

A Catholic friend of mine, active in his parish and close to his priest, later told me how local clerics are enraged by how they’ve been hung out to dry by the archdiocese. They’ve been given few guidelines for dealing with confused parishioners, or for protecting themselves. They’re vulnerable and angry, and they’ve been meeting, discussing their rights. Bishop Thomas, my friend’s priest told him, got wind of this. He called some priests in, and he was not too happy with their efforts to organize. But the priests didn’t back down, not even to a bishop—a highly unusual lack of obedience.

When I ask Thomas about his reaction to organizing priests, he portrays it differently. Once he heard priests were getting together, he says, he immediately reached out to the brotherhood, ready to assist.

As for Cardinal Rigali, he has inflamed the crisis by not stepping up, by not radically changing the way abusive priests are handled. But radical change is diametrically opposed to Rigali’s nature. A St. Louis priest was asked, many years ago, if there were one thing he could change about Justin Rigali, what would that be?

“I’d want him not to be afraid,” he said.

Yet there are whispers that even timid Justin Rigali may have gotten into a bit of hot water in Rome. He was working as secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, which is the number two position in the second-most important congregation in the Vatican; that congregation recommends candidates for bishop.

The secretary almost always serves at least five years. But Rigali was moved out after four years and one month—that’s when he was sent to St. Louis, to oversee the archdiocese there. One theory has it that Rigali may have gotten too aggressive in pushing his choices for bishops—that he might have, in other words, crossed someone in the Vatican with enough power to undermine his career.

There are also repeated, though unsubstantiated, rumors—ones cited by several Vatican or Rigali observers I spoke to—that there might have been another reason he left Rome. While at the Vatican, Rigali became chaplain for the Swiss Guards, the ex-military guys, young and unmarried, who provide security there. Uncharacteristic of a man dedicated to carefully building a Vatican career, Rigali befriended them, drank with them, and was involved with them to an extent that appeared unseemly to many. “Princes of the Church do not drink with the hired help,” one longtime Vatican observer says. (The archdiocese also said it will not dignify questions about Rigali and the Swiss Guards with a response.)