New Archbishop Chaput’s Tactics

What he knows—and doesn't know—about the sex-abuse scandal in Philadelphia's Catholic Church

The new head of Philadelphia’s Catholic archdiocese, Charles Chaput, has been working on the sexual-abuse scandal here for some time—even as he was running things in Denver. It goes back to the fall of 2006, just as a statute-of-limitations change in cases involving minors was percolating in Harrisburg.

The previous year, the first grand jury report had been released by D.A. Lynne Abraham, detailing how the Church had covered up sex abuse of children and moved offending priests around instead of dismissing them. Cardinal Rigali publicly supported opening the window for adults to file criminal complaints of childhood abuse. Through a powerful Catholic lobbying group, however, the Cardinal simultaneously worked in secret against it.

In October ’06, Bishop Chaput was invited to come to Harrisburg from Denver to give the homily at an annual mass—sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society, made up of Catholic lawyers—that opens a new legislative season; it’s attended by Catholic movers and shakers in state government.

The previous April, Chaput had stopped a bill in the Colorado legislature that would have enabled adult survivors of childhood sex abuse a one-year window—no matter how much time had passed—to sue their abusers. Chaput came up with an aggressive, novel approach: He enlisted the powerful state teachers union in his lobbying effort, and he won.

During his homily in Harrisburg, Chaput did not take a specific position on impending legislation. Instead, he spoke to Catholic state government powerbrokers about their duty to the Church. “Stuffing your Catholic faith in a closet when we enter the public square or join a public debate isn’t good manners,” he said. “It’s cowardice.” He pointed to the vacuum of moral leadership in the world, and that what the world “needs more than anything else is holiness—holy men and women who love Jesus Christ and God’s Word more than they love their own careers and agendas.”

This round, however, Chaput lost. Governor Rendell would sign the bill allowing the sexual abuse of a minor to be pursued criminally up until a victim was 50 years old.

After Chaput’s homily, Charlie Gallagher, one of the lead attorneys who worked on that ’05 grand jury report, went up to him and asked why he was opposed to expanding the statute of limitations. The bishop admitted that he was behind the curve on Philadelphia’s crisis; he hadn’t read the grand jury report.

Gallagher happened to be carrying a copy of it, all 400-plus pages, and offered it to the bishop. The bishop said that it was too bulky for his overnight bag, that he couldn’t take it back to Denver. He handed Gallagher his card and suggested he mail it instead.

Bishop Chaput now says, five years later, that he still hasn’t read the report.

There is big concern, among sexual-abuse activists, over Chaput’s appointment as head of the Philadelphia archdiocese. Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who has represented many victims nationwide, including some in Denver, says that Chaput “initially appeared sincerely interested in outreach to begin the healing” of victims. But costs in Denver mounted: The archdiocese paid out some $10 million between 2004 and 2010 to settle 60 clergy sex-abuse claims or lawsuits.

“He started deploying hard-ball tactics,” Anderson says. “He went after survivors. I rarely see, in cases like this, that survivors are beat down.” But in cases where survivors tried to remain anonymous, identifying themselves as Jane or John Doe, Denver archdiocese lawyers interviewed family members, neighbors and employers, Anderson says. Confidentiality was summarily breached.

Charlie Gallagher gives Chaput credit in one area: “I don’t think he’ll have any time for pervert priests—he’ll dismiss those guys.” Otherwise, Gallagher says, “Chaput is no different than the others,” meaning Anthony Bevilacqua, Justin Rigali and tradition-bound Church hierarchy all over. “They don’t change within themselves. It has to be forced.”

Read Robert Huber’s recent feature, “Catholics in Crisis: Sex and Deception in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” here.