PHILADELPHIA — Three weeks after a scathing grand jury report accused the Philadelphia Archdiocese of providing safe haven for as many as 37 priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior toward minors, most of those priests remain active in the ministry.
The possibility that even one predatory priest, not to mention three dozen, might still be serving in parishes — “on duty in the archdiocese today, with open access to new young prey,” as the grand jury put it — has unnerved many Roman Catholics here and sent the church reeling in the latest and one of the most damning episodes in the American church since it became engulfed in the sexual abuse scandal nearly a decade ago.
The extent of the scandal here, including a cover-up that the grand jury said stretched over many years, is so great that Philadelphia is “Boston reborn,” said David J. O’Brien, who teaches Catholic history at the , referring to the archdiocese where widespread sexual abuse exploded in public in 2002.
Some parishioners say they feel discouraged and are caught in a wave of anxiety, even as they continue to attend Mass.
“It’s a tough day to be a faith-filled Catholic,” Maria Shultz, 43, a secretary at Immaculata University, said after Mass last weekend at St. Joseph’s Church in suburban Downingtown.
But Mrs. Shultz, who has four daughters, expressed no doubt about how the church should deal with the 37 priests. “They should be removed immediately,” she said.
The church has not explained directly why these priests, most of whom were not publicly identified, are still active, though it is under intense pressure to do so. Cardinal Justin Rigali initially said there were no active priests with substantiated allegations against them, but six days later, he placed three of them, whose activities had been described in detail by the grand jury, on administrative leave.
He also hired an outside lawyer, Gina Maisto Smith, a former assistant district attorney who had prosecuted child sexual assault cases for 15 years, to lead a re-examination of the cases.
“There is a tremendous sense of urgency here,” Mrs. Smith said in an interview this week at the archdiocese, where she said she and a team had been working around the clock, without interference from the church hierarchy. “They’ve given me the freedom and the independence to conduct a thorough review,” she said, with “unfettered access to files.”
She added that announcements about her initial review would be coming “sooner rather than later.”
“The urgency is to respond to that concern over the 37, what that means, how that number was derived and what to do in response to it,” she said.
Philadelphia is unusual in that the archdiocese has been the subject of not one but two grand jury reports. The first, in 2005, found credible accusations of abuse by 63 priests, whose activities had been covered up by the church. But there were no indictments, mainly because the statute of limitations had expired.
This time, the climate is different.
When the grand jury issued its report on Feb. 10, the district attorney immediately indicted two priests, a parochial school teacher and one who had left the priesthood, on charges of rape. He also indicted a high-ranking church official on charges of endangering the welfare of children — the first time the courts have reached into the church hierarchy in the sex scandal in the United States. All four are due in court on March 14.
When the archdiocese learns of reports of sexual abuse, it is now supposed to report them to the district attorney, which is what led to the most recent grand jury investigation. Extensions on the statute of limitations also made prosecutions possible this time.
But even with these changes, some were surprised to see the grand jury paint a picture of a church where serious problems still festered.
“The thing that is significant about Philadelphia is the assumption that the authorities had made changes and the system had been fixed,” said Terence McKiernan, the president of BishopAccountability.org, which archives documents from the abuse scandal in dioceses across the country. “But the headline is that in Philadelphia, the system is still broke.”
The grand jury said 20 of the active priests were accused of sexual abuse and 17 others were accused of “inappropriate behavior with minors.”
In response, Cardinal Rigali issued a statement the day of the report, saying, “I assure all the faithful that there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them.”
The phrasing spoke directly to the church’s policy of “zero tolerance” of priests who sexually abuse minors. If any active priests have such allegations against them, the policy calls for their suspension until the charges are resolved.
Still, six days later, he placed three priests on administrative leave — a tacit acknowledgment that perhaps there were priests facing such accusations.
Leonard Norman Primiano, a Roman Catholic who heads the department of religious studies at Cabrini College in suburban Radnor, said he was surprised that the archdiocese had not moved more quickly to suspend the 37 priests, given the “zero tolerance” policy.
“It’s astonishing that they wouldn’t be as vigilant about placing a priest in a parish on leave if there were any question about that priest’s activity,” he said, acknowledging that a suspension could be devastating for a priest who is falsely accused.
The uncertain fate of the 37 active priests, whose names the archdiocese turned over to the district attorney, all but guarantees a continuing spectacle here. So do the indictments, a flurry of civil suits against church officials, the continued stepping forward of victims and the potential for courtroom drama.
Three weeks into the scandal, the archdiocese said it was not clear how much the revelations had hurt attendance at Mass and donations. Daniel E. Thomas, an auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, said he had heard both sides: some parishioners were attending church more to pray for the victims and “the good priests, the faithful priests,” and some have told him, “We’re angry, we’re confused and we’re distressed.”
He also said that some priests had told him that donations were not down but that he was aware of “at least a few people who have said, ‘I’m not going to be giving to the church’ ” and that some were not fulfilling their pledges to give to the church’s capital campaign. He said money for the capital campaign goes specifically to help the church fulfill its charitable mission; it cannot go toward the defense of priests or legal fees, he said, and so only the poor, the sick and the needy would suffer if those donations dried up.