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Sex-abuse experts weigh claims for archdioscese

The cases can be beyond cold, dating back decades.

The cases can be beyond cold, dating back decades.

The wrongful conduct can be as blatant as rape, or as subtle as a whispered compliment.

And the accused are among the most respected men in the region.

To sort it all out, the former sex-crimes prosecutor heading the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's investigation of nearly 30 suspended priests has put together a team that includes experts on the psychology of sex offenders and a pair of ex-police officers from the Special Victims Unit.

Gina Maisto Smith aims to finish her digging in six to nine months.

"These cases at their core are very complex," she said in an interview last week. "They often involve word against word, a delay in reporting, difficult psychological issues on both sides, and allegations typically not supported by physical evidence."

Smith's mandate from the archdiocese is twofold. For nearly two months, she has been reviewing the allegations against priests put on administrative leave after the explosive grand jury report that accused the church of continuing to mishandle cases of clergy sex abuse and other improper behavior with children.

She and her team will make recommendations to Cardinal Justin Rigali on the suspended priests' "suitability for ministry." That choice of phrase is significant; her reports will stop short of declaring the clerics guilty or innocent of misdeeds.

Rigali will then clear them, restore them to ministry with certain restrictions, or defrock them.

Smith's other mission is to guide the hierarchy as it overhauls its process for investigating future complaints. In a major step, the archdiocese last month hired another experienced former Philadelphia prosecutor, Al Toczydlowski, to lead abuse investigations once Smith has dealt with the current pool of suspended clergymen.

Toczydlowski, who has the archdiocesan title "delegate of investigations," will draw upon the same sort of expertise that Smith has at her command.

Smith's new team, paid by the archdiocese as consultants, includes:

Barbara Ziv, a forensic psychiatrist. Ziv, who has made hundreds of assessments of sex offenders for the courts across the region, will play a key role in interviewing accused priests.

Barry Zakireh, a psychologist who specializes in evaluating and treating sex criminals. He heads the sex offenders group at the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia.

Maria McColgan, a pediatrician who leads the child-abuse unit at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. Among other skills, McColgan will provide expertise on child development - key in weighing the testimony and recollections of those victimized at a young age.

Former Philadelphia Police Officers Thomas McDevitt and Harry Young. Both men, who retired last year, were assigned for more than a dozen years to the Special Victims Unit, where they investigated hundreds of rapes and sexual assaults.

Smith, a member of Philadelphia's Ballard Spahr law firm since 2006, served as an assistant district attorney with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office for nearly 20 years. She spent most of her career prosecuting sex-crime cases, though she also handled cases of other crimes against children, as well as homicides.

In an interview last week, she noted that societal and legal attitudes toward sexual assault had evolved over the decades, requiring ever-greater sophistication in investigations. When she became a prosecutor in 1988, it was not a crime for a man to rape his wife, and "date rape" absent force was not illegal.

In the cases of the suspended priests, she said, the complaints ranged from outright sexual abuse to "boundary issues."

The church, she said, has to find ways to spot and address the latter transgressions - conduct that, though short of criminal sexual assault, might include sex talk, massages or back rubs, sharing of pornographic materials, or lavishing gifts on minors.

In its report released Feb. 10, the grand jury lit into the archdiocese for the second time in six years over its handling of predator priests. It also complained that the church had not fully cooperated with the panel's investigation.

Since then, the District Attorney's Office has praised Smith for her willingness to share information.

The grand jury report reflected a follow-up investigation to a 2005 grand jury probe that was also scathing in its criticism of the archdiocese.

Smith and Toczydlowski are operating independently of the law firm Stradley Ronon, which previously oversaw investigations for the archdiocese, according to church officials.

"They're no longer in it," Toczydlowski said of Stradley Ronon. "I have no contact with them."

The grand jury report had criticized the archdiocese's past practice of passing "supposedly confidential information" from victims to Stradley Ronon. That law firm was defending the archdiocese in civil cases brought by alleged victims.

Joining Smith in her work has been Ballard lawyer John Grugan, as well as other lawyers from the firm. She said the dual tasks facing the Ballard lawyers and Toczydlowski made for intense workdays. "It's like changing the wheels on a bus while it's flying down the highway," she said.

Hired by Rigali on Feb. 15, Smith moved swiftly to see that accused priests were put on leave. In all, the archdiocese has suspended 29 priests, including three who face criminal charges as a result of the grand jury report.

She also quickly cleared eight priests, deeming the allegations against them too insubstantial to warrant action or further investigation.

Smith knows she is walking a fine line.

"There is an urgency to this process, but we can't allow the urgency to make us overreact," she said. "We have to be thoughtful and deliberate."

Her team will seek interviews with all the suspended priests, look for possible witnesses, and hunt for evidence to corroborate or rebut a complaint.

Asked about victim interviews, Smith said they would be sought on a case-by-case basis.

In some instances, she pointed out, priests may simply admit wrongful conduct, sparing victims from having to retell painful stories of abuse. "This process is not designed to revictimize those involved," she said.

In other cases, the original complaint may have been leveled by someone other than a minor, such as a parent, or brought decades ago. The victims might not want to talk, she said. "Some may have made a choice to move on."

Smith said she did not expect to make a public announcement on the cases even as she forwards her recommendations to Rigali, case by case. She said she was sure the cardinal would identify the priests he disciplines.

Toczydlowski, a former deputy district attorney with 30 years' experience as a prosecutor, said that the path ahead is straightforward.

His goal, he said, is "to try to make sure this doesn't happen again, to make sure that there is never going to be a third grand jury."