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After grand jury report on Philadelphia clergy scandal, more changes, more accusers

This is what surprises Mary Achilles: The victims keep calling. Four months after a grand jury castigated the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over its response to victims of clergy sex abuse, dozens still ask each week for help.

Mary Achilles was hired by the archdiocese to make changes before the report. (John Martin / Staff)
Mary Achilles was hired by the archdiocese to make changes before the report. (John Martin / Staff)Read more

This is what surprises Mary Achilles: The victims keep calling.

Four months after a grand jury castigated the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over its response to victims of clergy sex abuse, dozens still ask each week for help.

The archdiocese expects to pay more than $1.2 million for abuse victims' therapy this year, three times the amount it paid five years ago.

One alleged victim sat in the lobby of the archdiocese's Center City headquarters, threatening suicide. Church officials helped admit at least three others for psychiatric treatment.

The grand jury report "has reawakened everybody," Achilles said.

Achilles, who served for a decade as the victim advocate for Pennsylvania, was hired by the archdiocese in January, weeks before the grand jury released its findings. Her task: Orchestrate a broad restructuring of a victim-assistance program that, the report said, sometimes seemed as intent on investigating or deterring victims as it did on helping them.

The changes include ending any interrogation of alleged victims; implementing new training for thousands of priests, teachers, and employees; and crafting plans for an independent agency to counsel and serve victims.

On Thursday, the archdiocese is scheduled to announce its latest move: hiring Leslie Davila, who until now has been a victim advocate at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, to lead its Office of Children and Youth Protection.

Most of the changes mirror recommendations made by the grand jury, or address flaws highlighted in its report. They do not, however, comply with one of its central suggestions - that the victims-assistance program "be removed from the control of the archdiocese."

Citing a gag order in the ongoing criminal case against one former and three current clerics, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams said his office had no comment on the archdiocese's changes.

But another frequent critic voiced skepticism that the church could be trusted to reform, as long as it was funding victim services.

"The sad but simple truth is the one who pays the piper calls the tune," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

That Achilles has been enlisted to help implement the changes is notable. She made some of the very same recommendations in 2004, when as the state victim advocate she gave expert testimony before the first grand jury investigating abusive priests in the archdiocese.

In the outrage that followed that report, Cardinal Justin Rigali gave Achilles a three-year consulting contract extending to December 2008.

The grand jury report released this year cast doubt on just how successful she was.

"Ms. Achilles was supposed to change the way the archdiocese handled victims' complaints," it stated. "The victim assistance coordinators under Ms. Achilles' watch were supposed to 'provide comprehensive support to those who have experienced sexual abuse as minors.' The reality, we have found, is something different."

Now, after two years in private consulting, she's back in essentially the same role, answering to the same leadership, under a full-time one-year contract for a fee she won't disclose.

Still, Achilles said she didn't see her previous tenure as a failure. She said the archdiocese had implemented dozens of her recommendations between 2006 and 2008.

"Did I hit a home run for victims? Is everything OK? Absolutely not," she said in a 90-minute interview Monday at archdiocesan headquarters. "But you know what? I'm not in charge. I'm a consultant. . . . I would say they learned some things. I would say the atmosphere is different now."

She also said she believed there were lapses after she left. For instance, Achilles said she had persuaded church officials several years ago to stop requiring victims to sign forms stating they didn't want to report their abuse allegations to authorities.

But the form somehow returned in recent years - a step the grand jury contended was a backdoor way for the archdiocese to avoid reporting abusive priests to police or prosecutors.

Achilles said she had again banned the form. "Never, under any circumstance whatsoever," she said. "I never want to see that again."

The archdiocese has also agreed to report every complaint to law enforcement.

Achilles said church officials had recognized the importance of establishing separate offices to investigate abuse allegations and help victims. Before, the archdiocese's victim-assistance staffers sometimes found themselves gathering information for investigators.

"That was a huge mistake," Achilles said, echoing a recommendation she first made seven years ago. "It shouldn't have happened. And it should never happen again."

This month, she said, the archdiocese will start training 25,000 priests, teachers, staffers, and volunteers on how to recognize and report suspected abuse.

In addition, church officials are considering establishing or funding an independent organization to offer services for clergy sex-abuse victims.

Achilles was raised in Philadelphia and attended archdiocesan schools. She said she believed that not everyone fully comprehended the scope of the abuse scandal and grand jury allegations, but she understands the outrage.

"Every Catholic in the archdiocese has a right to be angry, upset, frustrated, confused," she said. "The archdiocese, despite whatever good they did, there's failures that made it into the grand jury report."

Her role is largely on the administrative end, but Achilles said she'd had opportunities to speak one on one with victims. "That's the kind of stuff that feeds my soul," she said.

Ultimately, she said, they are her clients.

"Victims should go where they will get help - anywhere. And help is different than reporting and putting a finger on someone," she said. "Help is sometimes what they need before they can report. . . . They don't have to come here. But please, God, get whatever help you need."