37 Philadelphia-area Catholic priests now under investigation in latest child sex abuse scandal

Brett Michael Dykes
February 17, 2011

The Vatican has withstood a very long run of scandals involving the alleged sexual abuse of boys by Catholic clergy. The latest church outpost to get caught up in an explosive sexual abuse scandal---the archdiocese of Philadelphia--is trying to ensure that parishioners see that it's taking an active hand in investigating the charges.

As you may have heard, three Philadelphia priests and a parochial school teacher were charged last Thursday with raping and sexually assaulting young boys in their care. In response to the charges, the Catholic Church in Philadelphia is opening its own investigation into the possibility that 37 additional priests who remain in active ministry committed similar crimes.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, the archbishop of the Philadelphia diocese, announced that the three priests already charged with crimes have been placed on administrative leave, and that his office is concerned about "credible allegations of child sexual abuse" involving 37 others. To lead the investigation, the church hired Gina Maisto Smith, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who's spent the bulk of her career prosecuting child sexual assault cases.

"Sexual abuse of children is a crime. It is always wrong and gravely evil. Protecting children, preventing child abuse and assisting victims are priorities of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," Rigali said in a statement. "Many people of faith and in the community at large think that the Archdiocese does not understand the gravity of child sexual abuse. We do. The task before us now is to recognize where we have fallen short and to let our actions speak to our resolve."

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams praised Rigali's announcement, and in the statement the church said it is "committed to working" with the DA's office to get to the bottom of all accusations. Rigali's aggressive response to the alleged pattern of abuse stands in stark contrast to the Church hierarchy's grudging-to-evasive handling of similar charges over a span of decades. As more recent scandals have emerged, senior Vatican officials have questioned the motivation of their critics. Indeed, last year, one senior Vatican official suggested that media outlets reporting on the scandals were targeting the Church because they'd been possessed by Satan.

In addition to charging the three priests with rape and sexual assault, Philadelphia prosecutors also charged Monsignor William Lynn, the Philadelphia Diocese's secretary for clergy under former Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua, with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child for his alleged role in covering up the crimes. From 1992-2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating such allegations. A grand jury found that he knowingly allowed pedophile priests to continue serving in roles in which they had regular access to children.

John Allen, CNN's senior Vatican analyst, characterized the charges against Lynn as a potential bombshell for the Church hierarchy.

"This is apparently the first time that a Catholic leader has been charged criminally for the cover-up as opposed to the abuse itself," Allen said on the news outlet's religion blog. "It sends a shot across the bow for bishops and other diocesan officials in other parts of the country, who have to wonder now if they've got criminal exposure, too."

(Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)