Philly D.A. Feuds With Church Over Abuse

By E.J. Kessler

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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Philadelphia’s “tough cookie” Jewish district attorney is feuding with the Catholic Church over a report her office issued last week alleging five decades of child sexual abuse by priests in the local archdiocese.

The district attorney, Lynne Abraham, released the 418-page grand jury report, the culmination of a 40-month investigation, at a September 21 press conference. The report did not charge any individual priests with crimes, noting that the statute of limitations had expired, but it described in graphic detail how at least 63 priests and perhaps many more abused “hundreds of child victims.” It also charged that a “cover-up” by archdiocese officials at all levels led to abusive priests being “left quietly in place or ‘recycled’ to unsuspecting new parishes — vastly expanding the number of children who were abused,” in addition to hindering prosecutions.

“[I]n its callous, calculating manner, the Archdiocese ‘handling’ of the abuse scandal was at least as immoral as the abuse itself,” the report asserts.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese, at a press conference the same day, pushed back ferociously, with an attorney for the church, William Sasso, calling the report “incredibly biased and anti-Catholic.”

The abuse report also is proving embarrassing for Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Rick Santorum, a Republican. Santorum, a staunchly conservative Catholic, has spoken out strongly against priest pedophilia in liberal states such as Massachusetts.

In 2002, Santorum published an opinion article claiming, among other things, that the liberalism of the Boston area had contributed to the epidemic of sexual abuse among priests in Massachusetts. “Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture,” Santorum wrote in the column, which appeared on the Web site Catholic Online. “When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.”

Last month, Santorum, who is running for reelection next year, defended and amplified those remarks, saying in a television appearance on ABC News’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” that Massachusetts’s two liberal Democratic senators, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, “did nothing” and “sat by and let [the abuse scandal] happen” in their state.

This week, however, the senator had little to say when asked about the Philadelphia scandal. Asked Tuesday to respond to the report from Abraham’s office, Santorum’s spokesman, Robert Traynham, said that “as a Catholic” the senator was “deeply concerned” about the crimes described in the report. He declined to comment further on the senator’s behalf, saying the senator had not read the document.

Jay Rieff, a spokesman for the campaign of Santorum’s Democratic opponent, Robert Casey Jr., who also is Catholic, said of the report, “People of all faiths should be deeply troubled. There should be zero tolerance for abuse of any kind.”

Elsewhere, the controversy was drawing mixed reactions.

The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, William Donohue, stopped short of endorsing the archdiocese’s claim. “I don’t know if the driving force behind the report was anti-Catholicism,” he said. Still, he said, “It is sport in certain circles to beat up on the Catholic Church.” Abraham, he said, was “grandstanding.”

Observers in Pennsylvania said that it was unlikely that the church’s charge of anti-Catholicism would stick to Abraham, who, early in her career was dubbed a “tough cookie” by Philadelphia’s legendary tough-on-crime mayor, Frank Rizzo. During her 15 years as district attorney, Abraham has earned a reputation as an avid crime fighter and advocate of the death penalty.

G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, said the anti-Catholic charge would not gain traction because “the Catholic Church has problems with its own members” on the issue. Abraham, who faces only token Republican opposition in November’s election, is unlikely to suffer politically, said Madonna, who is Catholic.

“Does anyone in the church believe the church should not be more vigorous in ferreting out this problem?” Madonna asked. “Politically, it’s going to take more than the district attorney to make things happen. It’s going to take public officials at all levels to get anything resolved.”

In recent years, anti-Catholic charges have figured prominently in the political pushback surrounding some of President Bush’s anti-abortion federal judicial picks. In 2003, for example, the head of New York’s Conservative party, Michael Long, accused Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of having “an anti-Catholic bias when it comes to the principles, traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church.” Long said that Schumer wanted to make sure any Catholic “can’t advance in the judicial system.” Those charges resurfaced in muted form in the jockeying around Bush’s nomination of Judge John Roberts for Supreme Court Justice, as conservatives admonished senators to temper their questions about the nominee’s abortion views. Several Catholic Democratic lawmakers found themselves fending off charges of anti-Catholic bigotry from conservative activists.

During several recent high profile, religion-laced controversies involving Jews and Catholics, the religious identity of the Jews involved has become an issue. Burt Siegel, the director of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said, however, that he had not heard Abraham’s religion brought into any discussion of the report.

Siegel said he is “sympathetic to the profound embarrassment and pain” Catholics feel about charges that the church leadership did not stop the abuse, but that the idea that the report was motivated by anti-Catholic animus did not hold up in light of the fact that many of the grand jury’s members were Catholic.

The archdiocese, however, seemed undeterred by the makeup of the jury.

In a 69-page rebuttal to the report from Abraham’s office, the church described the grand jury as “inquisitors.” The rebuttal also singled out the district attorney for opprobrium, saying her office had “abused its power.”

“By focusing only on salacious details and the Catholic Church, the District Attorney does a public disservice in creating the misperception that sexual abuse of minors is a ‘Catholic’ problem, rather than a social problem,” the rebuttal stated. “The sexual abuse of minors is not limited to any one group. Yet, the report does not even mention any other organizations — religious or otherwise — besides the Philadelphia archdiocese.”

The archdiocese excoriated the report as the “lopsided” result of a “discriminatory” investigation characterized by “exceptional hostility” and “insidious pre-judgments” that it linked to centuries-old anti-Catholic bigotry.

“The insidious tone and negative assumptions made about the Catholic Church are reminiscent of the days of rampant Know-Nothingism in the 1840s in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the Northeast,” according to the rebuttal. In those days, clergy members were killed and churches destroyed in rioting. Interestingly, the second Jew to serve in Congress, Lewis Charles Levin, was a member of the nativist Know-Nothing Party representing Philadelphia. He was tried and found not guilty of inciting a riot.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney said she was not giving any interviews. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese did not return calls seeking comment.

In its 30-page response to the church’s rebuttal, Abraham’s office asserted that the archdiocese was engaging in “gamesmanship, denial and disparagement of the grand jury process.”

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