Archbishop Charles J. Chaput plans to meet Wednesday with hundreds of Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests, stirring hopes that he may announce the fates of nearly two dozen clergy suspended last year over child sex-abuse or misconduct allegations.
The e-mail invitation sent to priests Monday did not disclose the purpose of the afternoon gathering at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County. Archdiocesan officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The meeting comes days before Chaput's stated deadline for deciding whether some or all of the suspended clerics will be restored to ministry.
"Some of these cases are very near conclusion," Chaput wrote in his March 8 newsletter. "My hope is that most will be completed and announced over the next eight weeks."
The Rev. Christopher Walsh, a leader of the Association of Philadelphia Priests, a support group formed last year, said many hope to hear news about the priests on leave.
"These priests, their accusers, their parishes, and the faithful of the archdiocese have been waiting many months for information on these cases," said Walsh, pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort in Mount Airy.
Resolving the suspensions was one of the most vexing and controversial tasks facing Chaput after his installation last September as leader of the region's Catholic Church.
His predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, placed 27 priests on administrative leave after a February grand jury report recommended criminal charges against three active priests and accused the archdiocese of allowing dozens of others to remain in ministry despite what it called "credible" past allegations of misconduct or sexual abuse.
The report detailed just three cases, but all of the suspended clerics were ordered to leave their church-owned residences and barred from publicly celebrating Mass or ministering the sacraments.
The mass suspension, an unprecedented step by any church leader since the clergy-sex abuse scandal exploded a decade ago, roiled Catholics across the region. Church officials scrambled to staff depleted rectories, parishioners struggled to accept the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of their pastors, and hundreds of unaccused priests banded together for support and to assert their rights to the church hierarchy.
Rigali hired a former sex-crimes prosecutor to reexamine the allegations, which allegedly ranged from sexual abuse to "boundary violations" such as giving presents, talking about sex, or showing pornography to minors. A review that officials first said would take six to nine months has lasted more than a year, frustrating the affected priests, their supporters, and parishioners.
One suspended priest, the Rev. Daniel Hoy, who had been living at Our Lady of Assumption in Strafford, Chester County, died last summer. Another is Msgr. William J. Lynn, the former pastor of St. Joseph Church in Downingtown, now being tried for endangering children when he was the archdiocese secretary of clergy.
In recent months, archdiocesan officials have repeatedly declined to discuss the status of the other priests or their internal investigation. They contend that to do so would violate a gag order issued by Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, the judge in Lynn's landmark trial.
Reinstating any of them is fraught with pitfalls, particularly if archdiocesan officials decide not to disclose even allegations that have been discredited.
"People are going to want to know: Why was this priest on leave? Are my children safe?" said one Catholic pastor, who asked not to be identified discussing the matter.
The archdiocese must "also ask itself how it's going to restore the good name" of priests who were falsely accused or guilty of conduct that doesn't warrant their removal, he said.
"If it were me," the pastor said, "I would go before my parish and say 'Let me tell you my story.' "
Bernard Gutkowski, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Swedesburg, Montgomery County, said he would happily welcome back his pastor, the Rev. Andrew McCormick.
Gutkowski, who heads the parish men's group, said McCormick has been left largely in the dark about the status of the investigation. He talked to the pastor as recently as last week, Gutkowski said, "and he didn't know anything about anything."