Chaput navigating rocky first weeks in embattled Philly archdiocese

Chaput navigating rocky first weeks in embattled Philly archdiocese

Former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput took the reins in sex-scandal-plagued Philadelphia last week. A sampling of YouTubes posted last week offers a snapshot of his trying first days there, a new Church leader in a place grown deeply distrustful of Church leaders.

A video posted Thursday captured angry Catholics protesting outside the mass held to install Chaput in his new position.

“We’re here to welcome Archbishop Chaput with an appropriate welcome, I think,” said one protester, “and that’s to ask him, Number One, to tell the truth; Number Two, to make survivors and their healing a priority; and, Number Three, to not to take any of the arrogance of the hierarchy and bring it to Philadelphia. ”

“I think [Chaput] should support the kind of legislation that protects children,” said another protester. “That would be a good start. Pennsylvania needs a law. There should be window legislation allowing these people to have a day in court.”

Chaput is not likely to support any kind of “window legislation”– laws that would extend statutes of limitations in civil cases brought against clergy accused of sexual abuse– which is surely partly why Pope Benedict appointed Chaput to the position.

Chaput has established a strong record over the last decade of successfully guarding the Church against the fallout of sexual-abuse charges. He has shown personal compassion for victims and has moved swiftly to remove accused priests from public ministry. But he has also pushed back hard against legal efforts to hold the Church responsible for abuse, mainly by battling to prevent the kind of high-dollar payouts to victims made by the Church in recent years and that culminated, perhaps, in the hundreds-of-million-dollar payouts that came in the late-2000s in California.

Indeed, Chaput’s scrappy efforts in opposing window legislation have become a model to Church leaders in the U.S. He is a modern prelate who gets dirty playing hardcore politics.

In opposing a Colorado same-sex civil unions bill last year, Chaput pressed his case against the bill from the pulpit and in essays that fudged the facts, a tactic Joelle Casteix, Western Regional Director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he also used in opposing window law bills here.

In a blog post on the news of his appointment to Philadelphia, she sounded an alarm:

In 2006, when Colorado legislators tried to expand archaic statutes of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse, including a civil window for older victims, Chaput spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and used the pulpit to kill the legislation… While fighting a [2008 version of the legislation], Chaput played a game well known in politics: “I’m bad, but so are they.” To do this, his lawyers did a simple search of Colorado public school teachers who had been arrested for sexual abuse. Then they put the names in a list, publicized it, and claimed that Chaput had unearthed a scandal of molestation in the public education system.  The PR stunt was a slap in the face of clergy sex abuse survivors.  Why? Because the teachers on Chaput’s list were already exposed and  arrested, unlike the vast majority of the predator clerics in the Catholic Church.  The teachers on Chaput’s list were not carefully hidden by their superiors, shuttled from parish to parish, covered-up by Church officials, and allowed to molest more kids.

In fact, according to Bishop-Accountability.org, the leading database of documents chronicling the sex abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church, Chaput has been less than forthcoming in naming accused clergy.  In 2004, when the first national John Jay study on abusive priests was released, Chaput fudged the math. He only reported diocesan priests and didn’t submit any information on religious order priests who – like himself – make up more than half of the priests in the diocese. (Chaput is a religious order priest, a Capuchin OFM).  Then, he only submitted the names of priests that the diocese had “confirmed” had abused kids, not the number of total accusations.

Chaput’s installment is the latest chapter in one of the most high-profile contemporary Church upheavals in the country. The Philadelphia archdiocese has been doing major damage control since February, when a grand jury skewered Cardinal Justin Rigali, his bishops and staff for retaining dozens of problem priests. It charged three priests and a Catholic school teacher with rape and a priest-administrator or monsignor with endangering children by only shuffling accused priests to different posts. The panel said the Church allowed nearly 40 suspected abusers to continue working.

The strain on internal relations at the archdiocese is a matter of public record. The head of the archdiocese panel on priest sex abuse last month responded angrily to criticism heaped on the panel by the grand jury. Ana Maria Catanzaro wrote at the Catholic magazine Commonweal that Rigali and his bishops “failed miserably at being open and transparent” with the panel and so panel members couldn’t perform genuine oversight and shouldn’t be made to carry blame.

“What will it take for bishops to accept that their attitude of superiority and privilege only harms their image and the Church’s image?” she wrote.

In a video that introduces Chaput to Pennsylvanians, the archbishop sought to make the focus of the story of his installation wider than merely the sex-abuse controversy.

“Everybody’s talking about the problems Philadelphia has,” he said, “but that’s not who Philadelphia is… It’s very important for us to see [ourselves] as more than the problems we have.”

Another video, also posted last week, asks Chaput whether he believes “priests should be held to a higher standard.”

It’s an intimate piece, in which Chaput looks weary, his quiet and measured response conjuring the weight of the long slog ahead of him.

“Priests are human and they will sin,” he said. “But we also know god desires to use them as symbols of his presence among the church. So priests, when they accept the sacrament of ordination, they’re accepting responsibility to try very hard to be faithful to every teaching in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Reverend James Conley, auxiliary archbishop of Denver, was appointed apostolic administrator of the Denver archdiocese by Pope Benedict until he appoints a new archbishop. A spokesperson for the diocese told the Colorado Independent that that process could take roughly six months to a year to complete.

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic
jtomasic@coloradoindependent.com | 720-432-2128 |

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