As a wave of discontent ripples among its priests, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Thursday described its contact with 26 clerics suspended over past allegations of child sex abuse or misconduct and said it hoped to resolve their cases "over the next several months."
In a three-page memo sent by e-mail and fax to more than 500 priests in the region, two ranking church administrators also announced plans to begin preparing for the return or departure of the suspended priests.
"The plan is being developed to ensure the best possible pastoral care for those parish communities directly affected by the administrative leave of a priest, regardless of the eventual determination of each unique case," said the letter from Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Thomas and Mgsr. Daniel Sullivan, the archdiocesan vicar for clergy.
The letter marked the archdiocese's first substantive update in months on the suspended priests, many of whom had years of service as pastors or lived in rectories around the region.
The men were removed after the February arrests of four other current and former priests on sex-abuse and child-endangerment charges and a grand jury report that said church leaders ignored "credible" evidence that some of the 26 had previously sexually abused children or acted inappropriately around minors.
The update also comes as other local priests - stung by the report and their leaders' response to it - have taken an unusual step to gain a stronger voice in church matters.
Last month, scores of Philadelphia priests agreed to form an independent organization. The fledgling Philadelphia Priests Association, as it calls itself, hopes to provide a new voice for area clergy and to advocate archdiocesan policies "that respect the canonical, civil, and human rights of a priest," according to its proposed bylaws.
Priests in other dioceses, including Pittsburgh and Chicago, have for decades maintained independent associations. The Philadelphia Archdiocese has a priests' advisory council, but it has been led over the last 30 years by three influential cardinals.
One person at the last meeting was the Rev. John McNamee, a retired Philadelphia priest who publicly chided his brethren this year for "fearful, mute submissiveness" that he thought was an obstacle to change.
McNamee said the association's leaders were struggling to define their goals without alienating church leaders. He said he told them, "There's no way this isn't going to be perceived as adversarial."
The Rev. Christopher Walsh, pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort in Philadelphia and one of the organizers, declined to discuss the group.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said Thursday that church leaders neither supported nor opposed the organization and that the update to priests was not sent in response to the new group's formation.
"We recognize that there's a hunger for information," said spokeswoman Donna Farrell. "This is part of the continuing effort to communicate with the priests."
After the grand jury report in February, Cardinal Justin Rigali initially disputed that any active priests had admitted or proven allegations against them. But within weeks, he placed the 26 men on leave and hired a former sex-crimes prosecutor, Gina Maisto Smith, to reexamine past allegations against them.
The memo issued Thursday said that all of her investigations were continuing and that each priest would get an opportunity to review the accusations and submit a written statement.
The inquiry is likely to end "over the next several months," the letter said, with the outcomes announced in batches of three to five at a time.
The suspended priests can wear their Roman collars, but are barred from celebrating Mass, administering sacraments, or returning to their parishes. Each was also required to vacate his home.
The suspended clerics are collecting their salaries and benefits. The archdiocese is also providing housing, a canon lawyer, and counseling if they want or need it.
According to the letter, fellow priests have been reaching out "to offer fraternal care, a listening ear, and to check on their general welfare."
Last month, archdiocesan officials met with priests in meetings in the four suburban counties and Philadelphia. After those meetings, officials agreed to convene "focus groups" of priests to help shape and implement what they call Parish Restoration Plans for each of the churches affected by the suspensions. The meetings included talks on the process that could be required to reinstate suspended priests to their posts, but that didn't mean any or all would return.
"We need to plan for all eventualities," Farrell said. "We don't know what the final determinations will be."
Asked how the arrival of Rigali's successor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, could affect the timetable, Farrell said: "The archdiocese is committed to the process, as is the archbishop."