As Phoenix Robertson sat in church on Sunday, she looked around and noticed — not for the first time — that she was one of very few young people attending Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.
The 24-year-old resident of West Philadelphia said she believes the dwindling numbers of her peers at Mass each week is largely due to how the Roman Catholic Church has handled cases of child sex abuse by covering up allegations and shielding priests from public scrutiny for decades.
And the latest scandal, which came in the form of a news report that diocescan leaders nationwide had failed to disclose the names of hundreds of clergy members accused of sexually abusing children, will only engender more distrust and disdain, Robertson said.
“It’s bad for the church to cover things up. It’s bad for our collective souls,” Robertson said after emerging from 9:30 a.m. Mass. “But regardless of how it affects us, obviously the survivors or victims should be the top priority and it’s bad for them more than anyone.”
The Associated Press on Saturday published an investigation that found that the names of more than 900 clergy members accused of child sexual abuse were missing from lists released by dioceses, including 45 clergy members whose names did not appear on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s list of credibly accused priests.
“That’s absolutely disgusting,” Robertson said. “One would be too many, and 45 is 44 more than one.”
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia did not return two calls to his cell phone and an email from The Inquirer on Sunday, but in the AP article, the archdiocese said the 45 clergy members were excluded for a “variety of reasons.” For instance, about a dozen priests were left off the list because their conduct involving minors did not rise to the level of abuse, although a review board deemed them unsuitable for ministry, the archdiocese said.
About 100 people attended the 9:30 a.m. Mass at the cathedral on 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Their reactions to the AP report ranged from anger to resigned disappointment. Some parishioners said they believed that the Catholic Church should err on the side of disclosure, quickly releasing the name of all priests accused of child sex abuse, whether they have been formally charged by law enforcement authorities or not. After all, Catholics embrace the Christian philosophy of “bringing light to the darkness,” one parishioner pointed out.
“I think they’ve been keeping things silent consistently in different degrees,” said James Gondela, 67, of Chicago, who went to Mass with his daughter and grandchildren who live in Philadelphia. “And the pope just announced, `No more keeping things quiet,' and I’m like, ‘well, wait a minute — I thought we put a stop to keeping things quiet.’ There’s probably always going to be something kept silent. I’m for as much disclosure as possible."
Earlier this month, Pope Francis abolished a concept known as “pontifical secret," which had restricted access to documents and testimony about sexual abuse cases from legal authorities and victims. The new decree, approved by Francis, means that victims will be able to see more information about their cases and speak openly about their experience.
Other parishioners interviewed outside the cathedral after Mass were more reserved, saying that the church should not rush to publish the names of accused clergy unless the allegations are proven to be credible.
“You don’t want to stigmatize people, like there’s a reason why criminal records should be sealed," said Patricia Eget, 37, of the city’s Fairmount neighborhood, who was on her way into the cathedral for the 11 a.m. Mass. “You have to put the kids first, but there has to be some ability for people to move on and to seek forgiveness, even if they’ve done something wrong. And also, if they are innocent, they won’t be stigmatized forever just because they had an accusation.”
Of the 900 unlisted accused clergy members, the AP’s analysis revealed that prosecutors had charged more than 100 former clergy with sexual crimes, including rape.
“I think it’s horrible. I think everybody’s name should be public, just like any kind of sex predator,” said Elizabeth Castro, 47, who lives in Baton Rouge, La., but was visiting Philadelphia with her husband and two children. They took time out from sightseeing to attend Mass.
“There should not be an exception just because you’re a Catholic priest,” she said. “Priests should be treated like any other citizen because if my son is serving Mass at a church, I would like to know if that priest has been accused of a sexual crime.”