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

"Is this true?"

In February, at a hastily convened meeting of Catholic Church lawyers and administrators in Center City, that was the first question Cardinal Justin Rigali asked. And he needed an answer quickly.

The district attorney’s office had just released a grand jury report about local Catholic priests sexually abusing minors. It was not, of course, the first such grand jury report—that one, released in 2005, laid out in great detail not only how priests in the city’s archdiocese had abused children, but also how that abuse had been covered up under the direction of tough-minded Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. Instead of being reported to the DA’s office, pedophile priests were moved—sometimes repeatedly, from parish to parish to parish. Abusive priests kept right on abusing children.

And now this second grand jury report, six years later, was much shorter than the first, yet in some ways it was more devastating, because the central charge was the same: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia still allowed alleged pedophile priests—37 of them, the report said—to continue ministering to children. What’s more, the DA’s office was charging a monsignor, William Lynn, along with three priests and a parish teacher, with crimes related to sexual abuse. (All five have pleaded not guilty.) The monsignor’s indictment was especially telling. For much of the ’90s, Lynn reported directly to Cardinal Bevilacqua, and he was the first member of Church hierarchy in this country to be indicted as part of the sexual-abuse scandal. The point was inescapable: Something was very wrong with the way the archdiocese had been run. And with how it is still being run.

Which is why Cardinal Rigali, who succeeded Bevilacqua in overseeing the archdiocese in 2003, asked, at the meeting of Church lawyers and administrators in February, “Is this true? Is this true that we have 37 priests that have these credible allegations?”

The cardinal is careful, quiet, polite and, especially, dutiful, so the hideous possibility of this scandal opening up all over again was almost too much. “You could have knocked him over with a feather at that moment,” says one person who was at the meeting.

But the cardinal was immediately assured by several people there: It was most certainly not true about those 37 priests. So he issued a statement. There are, Rigali decreed, “no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them.”

But then, a month later, after the archdiocese conducted an internal investigation of accused priests, Rigali suspended 21 of them.

When the cardinal made the announcement about those 21, he declined to name them, but he did add something that no one had cause to dispute: “I know that for many people, their trust in the Church has been shaken.”

SEXUAL ABUSE OF A child by a trusted adult—in the case of a priest, a revered adult—is horrible enough. But piled on top of that are two layers­ of egregious behavior that are also mind-boggling. How is it that the Catholic Church in Philadelphia—­part of the most important Christian institution in the world—would cover up sexual abuse by priests? And then, when that was exposed, go right on covering it up?

At this point, a raft of books has been written searching for answers, because the way the Church handles sex generally—and sex abuse in particular—is not a new problem, and it’s not unique to Philadelphia.

Those answers turn out to be both strange and ugly. The Church’s protection of priests who sexually abuse children is a testament to its completely insular control and power apart from civil society. The Church takes care of its own, in other words, and that fact leads to a cruel bottom line: Maintaining the institution’s standing in the world is more important than taking care of victims of sexual abuse.

That’s why the Philadelphia archdiocese is now facing the greatest crisis in its history. It’s a lot to ask of parishioners—to continue kneeling before a classic top-down power structure controlled by men who wear medieval robes and sit on thrones and rule with unquestioned authority. Especially when that authority­ so pointedly fails their children.

And the crisis has spread beyond parishioners, because many priests in the archdiocese are just as enraged at how Church leadership has mishandled the scandal, and the awkward position it has put all of them in. It’s a very sad day when walking down the street wearing your collar has become a questionable decision.

So how did it come to that? The crisis can best be understood not just through the victims, but through the two men who have led the archdiocese through the past quarter century. Anthony Bevilacqua, arrogant and cocksure, and Justin Rigali, timid and duty-bound, reflect quite different sides of the institution and how it operates. Through them, the story of the local Church’s crisis unfolds, and it raises yet another question: Will the Catholic Church as we know it survive in Philadelphia?

JOE IS NOW 59 years old; his health is fragile—he’s had two heart attacks. He’s a small man, with straight brown hair combed to the side, like a boy’s. For the past few months, Joe’s been in therapy—ever since he came out with his story, at his church’s men’s group in Manayunk, of being abused. Putting words to his thoughts is not easy for him. His voice seems to escape, barely, from the side of his mouth as he tells his story again in a back booth at Michael’s Ridge Diner in Roxborough.

He was small and quiet and dumb—or at least the nuns at Roman Catholic High School said he was dumb. He was in ninth grade in 1968, barely getting by. Father Schmeer was a guidance counselor. He would call boys down to his office for supposedly skipping English class. One day, it was Joe’s turn. He knew what was about to happen, because other boys had been there. Or he didn’t know exactly, but he was about to find out.