At this most holy, wonderful time of the year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia slapped us with the names of four priests dismissed for alleged prior sexual misconduct with teenagers. I know one of those priests.
And then a local man held a press conference at his attorney’s office to announce that he was suing a priest who allegedly molested him years ago. It was a priest I initially thought I knew — a priest many of us thought we knew, due to a similarity of names. But the priest he’s accusing is no longer in South Philly, and no longer in active service.
I don’t know any of the accused clergy well enough to stake my life on their innocence, but I do know they’re innocent until proven guilty — and that the publicity alone will hang them, deserved or not.
As for the archdiocese, it’s all or nothing: Last year, Cardinal Bevilacqua didn’t provide the names of any of the three dozen priests accused of misconduct in the prior decades. As a Catholic, a Philadelphia resident and indeed a journalist, I felt I had every right to know their identities, and to relay them to you. I was outraged when those names were never offered.
It’s ironic, then, that the disclosure of the four priests’ names in last week’s Catholic Standard and Times (and, simultaneously, the Philadelphia Inquirer) rankled me. It’s not just because I don’t want to believe a priest I respect committed such a hypocritical atrocity — though of course that’s part of it.
What incensed me this time was the archdiocese’s willingness to harbor the numerous guilty all these years and then make sacrificial lambs out of the few recently investigated. Their names were almost triumphantly slapped across newspapers and broadcast on TV and radio — not by the press, whose members may shake their heads as they secretly revel in the utter irony and hypocrisy, but by the Church itself. It seemed a rather perverse public-relations campaign by the typically secret-service Philadelphia archdiocese to restore trust among its members.
Cardinal Rigali inherited our region’s piece of this universal mess when he took over for the retiring Bevilacqua, who appointed the investigative commission before he stepped down. Rigali, in keeping with last year’s rightful and long overdue U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mandate, is just the messenger in a plagued ministry. This can’t be a proud moment in his religious tenure, but he’s doing what he has to do — to save the children of the archdiocese and to save the face of the archdiocese.
Admittedly, I make these statements without knowing how thorough and reliable the Church’s investigations of the allegations against these four priests were. But it does appear that at least one of the priests — the one I know — is vehemently defending himself. I realize this doesn’t necessarily make him innocent, just as the accusation and resulting investigation don’t necessarily make him guilty.
Either way, we’re assuming a great deal with few details: An innocent man may lose his vocation and, more precious, his reputation; or a child was forced to lose his innocence and, more tragic, his faith in humanity. Either way, we lose.
As many of us celebrate the birthday of whom we trust is our savior, I choose to have faith, however na�vely, that not all priests, or even all bizarre pop stars, are child molesters. It’s the heaviest and the ugliest of accusations, and one that should be proven solidly before we cast our stones.