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Investigator says she's driven to seek justice in priest sex-abuse cases

As she pores over files from the Secret Archive of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and weighs the fates of accused priests, lawyer Gina Maisto Smith says she is determined to provide justice to victims.

Gina Maisto Smith is a former homicide and sexual-assault prosecutor. (Tom Gralish / Staff)
Gina Maisto Smith is a former homicide and sexual-assault prosecutor. (Tom Gralish / Staff)Read more

As she pores over files from the Secret Archive of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and weighs the fates of accused priests, lawyer Gina Maisto Smith says she is determined to provide justice to victims.

"They have taken a risk in bringing me on, because my lens is fiercely protecting children," said Smith, a former sex-crimes prosecutor.

She was talking of the top church officials who hired her last month to help the archdiocese dig itself out of its latest sex-abuse scandal.

Her job is to investigate a new round of complaints against alleged predatory priests, and to recommend reforms for handling future complaints. She has moved swiftly, already pushing through the suspensions of 21 clerics, pending comprehensive reviews of the allegations against them.

In an interview Friday at her offices at the Ballard Spahr law firm in Center City, Smith said her Catholic faith made her value "doing the right thing, and speaking the truth, and not turning my back or eye from evil."

"I'm not afraid," Smith added, "of standing up against a pillar of the community, whether they be a police officer, a psychologist - or a member of the clergy."

She said the archdiocesan hierarchy - rocked by the second scathing grand-jury report in six years - now shares that agenda.

"They're now listening," Smith said. "They're now willing to hear that voice, and they are committed to doing the right thing."

Not long after Cardinal Justin Rigali hired her, she was escorted to the Secret Archive - a room containing files that, under church law's Canon 489, involve "cases in the matter of morals." They unlocked the door and gave her the run of the place.

"They gave me access to everything," she said.

With that, Smith, 50, embarked on what is sure to be the most closely watched chapter of a career immersed in the complicated, wrenching world of sex-crimes investigation.

A former sexual-assault and homicide prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Smith is now a key adviser to a hierarchy that the grand-jury report painted as deeply recalcitrant about reform.

In the months ahead, she and her growing team will dig further into the details of the 21 cases, making judgments that could put the priests back in ministry or get them banned forever.

Smith is putting together a big team. It could eventually include a forensic psychiatrist, a psychologist trained in treating sex offenders, a pediatrician expert in child-abuse injuries, a trained interviewer of victims, and a victims' advocate. Already, four lawyers from Ballard Spahr and a paralegal have been assisting her.

The assignment puts Smith on a high wire, balancing the demands of a church weary of never-ending scandal and an anguished and vociferous network of victims' advocates weary of broken promises, secrets, and lies.

SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a key advocate group - has already denounced her hiring.

"I think it's important to point out she was handpicked by Cardinal Rigali," said Barbara Blaine, SNAP's national founder. "True, she had this history of working with the prosecutor's office and of prosecuting sex crimes. At that point, her clients were the victim and the state of Pennsylvania. Now her clients are Cardinal Rigali and the archdiocese."

Blaine, a Catholic who was abused as a child in an Ohio parish, said it would be best if a "non-Catholic" were appointed instead of Smith. Blaine and other SNAP leaders faulted Smith for being too close to church leadership, citing her board membership with Catholic Social Services.

But in the interview, Smith said that Rigali and his top aides had "given me the time and the freedom" to investigate thoroughly.

"Their actions, from the time that I was engaged, have supported that continued commitment to doing the right thing and transparency," she said.

Still, Smith acknowledged, only results will quell criticism. "We will have to let our actions speak," she said.

As an assistant district attorney for nearly 20 years, Smith did in fact win convictions of a cop and a therapist, just as she said.

She won a conviction against a police detective who raped a woman he was supposed to be questioning about a carjacking. She won another against a prominent Northeast Philadelphia psychologist who groped a 16-year-old patient. In all, she won convictions of hundreds.

In court, she was known for her rapport with victims and for the controlled fury of her presentations.

Once she got hold of a case, she would not let go - so much so that a band of defense attorneys once gave her a vise grip as a present.

"You did not want to get between Gina Smith and a jury," said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, which provides free legal representation to minors in abuse cases.

"As sweet a person as she is out of the courthouse, she could be an absolute tiger in the courtroom. If she's bringing it, you're probably going to lose."

A native of Trenton, the daughter of a state worker and a homemaker, Smith is a product of Catholic education, first at parish schools and then at St. Joseph's University. She received her law degree from Temple.

Former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, Smith's boss for most of her career, said last week that Smith had impressively pulled off the role of working mother

"She had a big load to carry, five kids and a husband," Abraham said. "She was very capable. She was a tough and strong prosecutor."

As Abraham noted, the job of pursuing sex crimes is one of the most difficult assignment prosecutors can get.

Emotional strain aside, the cases are simply legally tough. For starters, they often hinge on whether or not a woman or man consented to sex. This is not a factor in robbery cases; no time is wasted asking victims if they gave permission to have their wallets or handbags snatched.

In sex crimes, physical evidence does not necessarily resolve the issue of consent. There often are no witnesses beyond the people involved.

And in some cases - as has become well known through the worldwide church sex scandal - victims may wait decades to come forward. When they do, they often are psychologically damaged.

"Homicide lawyers have bodies. Federal lawyers have tapes," Smith said. "We had word against word."

Smith left the District Attorney's Office in 2006, joining Ballard Spahr. The firm already emphasized internal investigations for clients, and its leaders saw her background, especially her skill at street-level digging, as a way to strengthen that.

At Ballard Spahr, among other tasks, she has also helped advise universities on how to design systems to deal with sexual assaults.

Following the grand jury's report last month, the District Attorney's Office brought criminal charges against four current and former priests and a parochial school teacher. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for all of those cases Monday.

After the grand jury concluded that the archdiocese still harbored dozens of potentially abusive priests, church officials hired Smith to review the evidence against them.

She cleared eight such priests, ruling that the evidence was too insubstantial to warrant further investigation. In one case, she said, the suspicion stemmed from nothing more than that someone had yelled an insulting name at a priest years before.

In cases in which she recommended suspensions, Smith said, she generally did not turn up new evidence, but spotted troubling patterns lurking in case histories.

From her years as a prosecutor, Smith learned how to recognize the seemingly innocent stratagems of sexual predators - how they "groom" their victims, subtly escalating their overtures to the point of attack.

In recommending suspensions, she said, "You have to err on the side of the safety of children. That's it."

That said, Smith immediately noted that her review was only preliminary. She said she and her team would now launch more comprehensive inquiries into each case.

And, she said, this digging may well exonerate some priests. In all cases, she said, she will follow the threads wherever they leads.

"I won't turn my back on evidence of child abuse," she said. "Nor will I turn my back on evidence of a cover-up."