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Archdiocese of Philadelphia spins off Downingtown psychiatric center where pedophile priests were sent

The St. John Vianney Center will continue to operate as a Catholic mental health treatment center for clergy and religious.

The Cathedral Basilica of S.S. Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia.
The Cathedral Basilica of S.S. Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / File Photograph

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia has spun off St. John Vianney Center, a behavioral health facility in Downingtown, where for decades priests accused of sexually abusing or raping children were sent for evaluation.

In exchange for its independence as a 50-bed nonprofit psychiatric hospital, the Vianney Center agreed to pay the archdiocese $12 million, according to archdiocesan financial statements published last week.

The split was effective July 1, but has not been widely publicized.

An archdiocese spokesperson said Vianney Center officials wanted the mental health hospital that has exclusively treated clergy and religious to be financially and administratively independent “while continuing its mission as a Catholic institution,” and it had the means to do so.

“In turn, the Archdiocese was in an environment where there was an immediate need for cash as a result of its plans to fund the IRRP,” the spokesperson said referring to the church’s Independent Reconciliation and Reparation Program, which was started two years ago to financially compensate victims of sexual abuse by priests.

A 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on sexual abuse by Pennsylvania priests outside of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sharply criticized the Vianney Center and similar treatment centers in Maryland and New Mexico for doing a shoddy job protecting children from predatory priests.

“When a priest denied allegations of sexual abuse, he usually avoided any diagnosis related to the sexual abuse of children,” the report said. “Moreover, these institutions focused on a clinical diagnosis over actual behavior as reported by the victims. Put plainly, these institutions laundered accused priests, provided plausible deniability to the bishops, and permitted hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry.”

David Shellenberger, president of the Vianney Center, which the archdiocese founded in 1946, did not respond to an email Monday asking about the organization’s plans as an independent entity. A message left at a Vianney Center administrative office Tuesday got no response. A board member, Edward R. Solvibile, a retired health care executive, decline to discuss the split when reached at home Tuesday.

The Vianney Center transaction adds to a long run of divestitures by the archdiocese that started in 2012 with the sales of Villa St. Joseph by the Sea in Ventnor for $4 million and the Cardinal’s mansion near St. Joseph’s University for $10 million — both undertaken to fill gaping holes in the church’s operating budget.

In the following years, the archdiocese made a long-term lease of its cemeteries to a for-profit company for $89 million. It sold off the church’s six nursing homes and one assisted living facility for $145 million, and it sold excess real estate, including 55 acres of unused land at the Vianney Center for $3.7 million, raising additional money to help the church regain financial stability.

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The money was used to help fill gaps in pension funds, self-insurance reserves, and at a private archdiocesan bank that took deposits and made loans to parishes and other archdiocesan entities.

The archdiocese also sold its 72-acre St. Charles Borromeo Seminary property in Wynnewood last year for $43.5 million. That money is earmarked for the construction of a new seminary campus elsewhere.

The Vianney Center reported operating income of $875,384 on $10.7 million in revenue in the year ended June 30, 2019. Results for fiscal 2020 were not available. The center paid the archdiocese $9 million in July and has agreed to pay the remaining $3 million over 12 years.

Last week’s archdiocesan financial report included an update on the church’s Independent Reconciliation and Reparation Program.

The claim deadline was Sept. 30, 2019. Through June the church had paid victims $51.58 million. Officials estimated the total cost of reparation program at $102.1 million as of June 30, 2020, down from an estimate of $126.5 million a year earlier.

As of Nov. 18, the archdiocese had settled 319 claims for a total of $60.9 million.