Philadelphia’s Cardinal, Amid Scandal, Is Said to Be Retiring

By Erik Eckholm and Katharine Q. Seelye (New York Times)
July 18, 2011

Cardinal Justin Rigali, the Roman Catholic leader of Philadelphia, is expected to announce his retirement on Tuesday, some five months after the 1.5 million-member archdiocese was convulsed by evidence that officials had ignored sexual-abuse charges against dozens of currently active priests.

Cardinal Rigali, 76, who is planning to step down later this year, will be replaced by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, 66, a Native American who is known for his aggressive public opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, according to people familiar with the plans.

The changes are to be announced by the Vatican on Tuesday. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. Tuesday at which Cardinal Rigali is expected to appear with his successor.

In April, Cardinal Rigali turned 76. The customary retirement age for bishops is 75, although some have continued to serve for years beyond.

"Because he's over 75, you can't make the case that he resigning because of the scandals," said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and a Jesuit priest. "Certainly, the Vatican never wants to give the appearance of having someone resign under pressure."

But Cardinal Rigali's tenure in Philadelphia will inevitably be linked to the mishandling of sexual-abuse cases, which had gone on for decades but erupted this year into what Father Reese called "a disaster for the church."

A grand jury report in February accused the archdiocese of failing to report or remove predatory priests over the decades and said that as many as 37 priests remained active in the ministry despite accusations against them of sexual abuse or other inappropriate behavior with minors. The report was particularly shocking because an earlier grand jury, in 2005, reported accusations of abuse by 63 priests. In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy and promised to purge the priesthood of sexual predators.

Cardinal Rigali initially responded to the February grand jury report with what critics called evasive language, saying there were no priests in active ministry "who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them." But then in March, in a reversal, the archdiocese suspended 21 priests in what experts said was the most sweeping action of its kind for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

The grand jury report prompted the indictment of four priests and a parochial school teacher, and included the first criminal charges in the United States against a senior church official for covering up abusive behavior by priests. The total number of priests suspended is now 29.

After the suspensions, Cardinal Rigali apologized for the abuses, saying in a statement: "I am truly sorry for the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse, as well as to the members of our community who suffer as a result of this great evil and crime."

Cardinal Rigali previously served as archbishop of St. Louis. He was appointed to take over the Philadelphia archdiocese in 2003 and also elevated to the College of Cardinals that year.

Some Catholics in Philadelphia said Cardinal Rigali's lack of forceful leadership to weed out sex abusers had caused morale problems. Tom Maroon, a member of the St. Francis of Assisi Parish in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, said Monday that Cardinal Rigali had not been open enough with the public about suspect priests. "He didn't want to shake things up," Mr. Maroon said.

The man poised to succeed him, Archbishop Chaput, has led the Denver archdiocese since 1997. He has stood out even among Roman Catholic leaders for his aggressive promotion in the public arena of Catholic beliefs. In this respect, at least, he is likely to be a more visible presence in Philadelphia than Cardinal Rigali has been.

Advocates for sex-abuse victims expressed disappointment at the prospect of Archbishop Chaput's arrival. David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, described his record in fighting abuse as "dismal" and said he had opposed legislative proposals to give child victims more time to file civil claims.

David Trickett, president of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, described Archbishop Chaput as a strong-willed man of integrity.

The archbishop has hurled himself into public debates but he has also made a point of reaching out to groups he disagreed with, Mr. Trickett said. Still, he said, his outspokenness would leave a mixed legacy. "There are people who think he is absolutely the best thing, and there are people who go absolutely in the opposite direction," Mr. Trickett said.

Dan Frosch contributed reporting from Denver.