Denver’s Chaput among likely replacements for embattled Philly Cardinal Rigali

Catholic watchers expect Church authorities today to announce a replacement for Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, who has come under fire for covering up priest sex abuse in the archdiocese. The reputation of Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput as a leader in the recent drive to seriously address abuse crimes has placed him at the top of the list of likely candidates.

“Chaput has a strong track record on child protection, which seems to be the most important qualification for the post,” wrote columnist Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Register. “Chaput is a lightning rod on Church-State issues, but he has some media savvy to be sure. His appointment would be seen as a victory for the conservative wing in the American Church.”

The Philadelphia archdiocese has been doing damage control since February, when a grand jury skewered 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.

Rigali’s replacement will be walking into a storm. Trial preparations continue for two of the archdiocese priests accused of child molestation. The two men declined to make plea deals earlier this week.

Strain on internal relations at the archdiocese has become 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.

Chaput is not likely to reform “attitudes of superiority and privilege” should he be appointed to captain the ship in Philadelphia. He is staunch social conservative who has sharply criticized pro-choice and pro-gay rights U.S. politicians. He is a strong believer in Church hierarchy.

His investigation of Australian Bishop William Morris in part for advancing progressive reforms led Pope Benedict to recently sack Morris. The Australian bishop had sought to engage the Vatican in discussion about ordaining women and married men. Morris said he never saw Chaput’s report, which he implied was merely an exercise to justify forgone conclusions.

Chaput, however, would bring experience and a strong hand to managing the Philadelphia sex-abuse scandal.

In recent years, he has swiftly removed priests in Colorado from their duties when charges of sex abuse have been leveled.

The Pope two years ago appointed Chaput as one of the “visitators” or special investigators into the sex and money crimes of Rev. Marcial Maciel, the influential founder of the Legionaries of Christ Catholic order. The report issued by Chaput and his fellow investigators was fairly harsh. It admitted the veracity of the long list of accusations of rape and abuse and coverup that had dogged Maciel but that had gone unaddressed for years. Many criticized the report as too little, too late. Maciel died two years before the investigation report was issued.

[ Image: Charles Chaput ]

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