By David O'Reilly, Nancy Phillips, and Craig R. McCoy
Inquirer Staff Writers
Posted on Thu, Mar. 10, 2011
The solemn liturgical season of Lent began in sobering fashion Wednesday for area Catholics as they began to learn the names of 21 priests suspended this week amid allegations of sexual abuse or other improper behavior with minors.
The priests, placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, included four monsignors, and men with as many as 62 years in ministry or as few as seven.
In a move of nationally unprecedented scope and swiftness, the archdiocese announced Tuesday that it had suspended the priests in response to last month's Philadelphia grand jury report, which questioned why they were still in ministry despite the accusations.
The archdiocese declined to release a list of the priests or detail the accusations against them. But The Inquirer and other news organizations began identifying them on websites Wednesday afternoon.
Church officials chose to inform only the "affected communities," the parishes in which the priests served. Consequently, many of the faithful arrived at Ash Wednesday services wondering whether their pastors were among those placed on leave.
At the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Cardinal Justin Rigali, in his homily before nearly 1,000 people, said: "Once again we renew our commitment to make every effort possible to prevent these evil acts and protect children from harm."
The abruptness of the removals was perhaps nowhere more evident than at St. Philomena Church in Lansdowne. There, parishioners learned of their pastor's departure on the same day his Lenten message appeared in the parish bulletin and was posted on its website.
"Happy Lent!" the Rev. Paul A. Castellani wrote. ". . . Lent is an opportunity for us to stop for a few moments and to think how God has worked in our lives, and continues to do so, even when things do not go as we have planned or expected."
Castellani did not return phone calls.
Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, defended its decision not to make public a list of the priests because the accusations against them "include a wide range of complaints," some of which are unconfirmed or denied by the accused priests.
For that reason, she said, "we are making a public announcement in the affected parishes" where the priests were removed, rather than in all parishes or through the news media.
She stressed that when the cardinal announced the administrative leaves Tuesday, he made clear they were "interim measures, not a final determination or judgment" of guilt.
Victims' advocates criticized that decision.
"Incredibly irresponsible," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national victims' advocacy group.
"Every moment these predators' names are hidden gives them more opportunity to intimidate victims, threaten witnesses, discredit whistle-blowers, fabricate alibis, and even flee the country," he said.
Clohessy said that naming the priests, and detailing their assignments, could be vital information for police and victims.
At St. Katharine of Siena in Wayne, Msgr. George A. Majoras, vicar of Delaware County, told parishioners at a 7 p.m. Ash Wednesday service that he had an announcement from Rigali of a "sensitive nature": Their pastor, Msgr. John A. Close, was among those placed on leave.
"I am in the dark as you are," he said of the allegations. "As time goes on, as the process runs its course, I am sure we will all be informed."
Earlier in the day, parents of children at the parochial school learned about Close, a former rector at the cathedral, in an e-mail.
Given the nature of the allegations, Barbara Seaman, director of religious education, asked parents to talk to their children "with open, honest discussion that is age-appropriate about the situation."
"You may want to tell them what I know: Msgr. Close has been placed on administrative leave by the archdiocese. He has been accused of a wrongdoing. Any decision as to his guilt or innocence has yet to be determined."
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Seaman said she was angered by the media's attention to the pastor's removal.
"Would you people please lay off until after people have been informed?" she asked. "I think it is absolutely cruel to do this before people have been informed."
Close did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Efforts to reach the 20 other priests were mostly unsuccessful.
The Rev. Philip R. Barr, pastor emeritus at St. Edmond Parish in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the decision to place him on administrative leave.
"I have nothing to say," he said. "You'll have to contact the archdiocesan lawyers."
Reached at his home in Downingtown, the priest said he was busy preparing for a relative's funeral and did not have time to talk.
"Our family is heartbroken because my nephew has died, and I'm very busy planning his funeral," he said. "Thank you very much for calling. God bless you."
Details of the allegations against Barr and the other priests placed on leave were few. Church officials said they would release no information until an investigation was complete. Last month the archdiocese hired a former assistant district attorney, Gina Maisto Smith, whose preliminary review of church files led to the accused priests' suspensions.
A window into one case, however, was offered by a lawsuit involving Msgr. Michael Flood, who remained in ministry after being accused in 2009 of sexual abuse.
The suit said Flood - until Tuesday the pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Glenside - molested a student at St. John Neumann High School in Philadelphia in the late 1970s.
When the suit was filed, the archdiocese said Flood denied the abuse. Church officials said they could not investigate the claim because the suit did not name his accuser.
Another priest placed on leave this week, the Rev. Leonard Peterson, addressed the scandal Sunday in his last homily before he was removed from St. Maria Goretti parish in Hatfield.
According to postings on the parish website, Peterson described the church's reaction to the sex-abuse scandal as "belated hyperreactivity" and "like a heavy weight tugging on the 'swim strokes' of the innocent."
By late Wednesday, the posting could not be found on the website.
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or email@example.com.
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers John P. Martin, Jeremy Roebuck, and Mari A. Schaeffer.