PHILADELPHIA — A Native American archbishop takes the helm this week of the nation's sixth-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese at perhaps the most troubled time in its modern history, as it defends the first criminal indictment ever filed against a U.S. church official over the priest-abuse scandal.
Archbishop Charles Chaput, 66, will be installed Thursday to lead a Philadelphia archdiocese of nearly 1.5 million Catholics rocked by two scathing grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011 that claim the church concealed sex-abuse allegations for decades and transferred pedophile priests to unsuspecting parishes. Other troubles decades in the making include declining Mass attendance and clerical ranks and shuttering of schools and churches.
"The job of the next archbishop needs to be establishing what it means to be a Catholic in Philadelphia in the 21st century," said Rocco Palmo, Philadelphia-based author of the Catholic-oriented blog Whispers in the Loggia. "There's a sense that it's frozen in time ... that we have this great tradition but our best days are behind us."
Chaput replaces Cardinal Justin Rigali, 76, who was excoriated along with his predecessor by the grand jury's allegations this year that they protected church interests over victims. The grand jury also accused church officials of keeping 37 clergy in active ministry despite credible complaints they molested children.
"People are hoping for a lot of transparency, a willingness to lay the cards on the table and to be totally open," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "Chaput can do that. He can be the new sheriff in town and be out front and public."
Rigali, who spent three decades as a Vatican diplomat and high-level administrator, is retiring to Knoxville, Tenn., after his turbulent eight-year tenure as Philadelphia's eighth archbishop. Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation a year after it was tendered, as required, at age 75.
"The differences between the two are enough to give you whiplash," Palmo said.
Unlike his spotlight-shunning predecessor, Chaput developed a reputation as head of the Denver archdiocese for being highly visible in the media and for seeking input from the nonclerical lay community. His two top advisers from Denver coming with him to Philadelphia are not clergy but laypeople, Palmo said.
"With Chaput, there's no bubble, no cocoon of collars telling him what he wants to hear," he said. "People will see him out having dinner, they'll see him out in the community, which is something that will seem revolutionary in Philadelphia."
Chaput also is more vocal about church doctrine than the reserved Rigali. In Denver he publicly chastised Catholic lawmakers who favor abortion rights, condemned stem-cell research and gay marriage, and supported a Boulder school's decision to not re-enroll the child of a lesbian couple.
Putting himself more squarely in the public eye can be a plus for Chaput "if he says the right things, and it can be a minus if he puts his foot in his mouth — and he is capable of doing both," Reese said.
"The diocese is in crisis," he said. "The old ways of operating are simply not going to hold up anymore."
David Clohessy, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, disagreed.
"It's going to be business as usual but it won't seem that way because he's much more savvy about public relations than Rigali," he said. "The goodwill that he generates is just stunning. ... We want people to watch his actions more than his words and remember availability does not mean sensitivity."
But Chaput's supporters say he moved swiftly in settling a high-profile abuse allegation case in Denver. The archdiocese settled 43 sex abuse allegations against priests for a total of $8.2 million from 2005 to 2008 under Chaput, who publicly apologized to the victims.
Critics, however, complained he helped defeat efforts to allow child sex-abuse victims more time to file civil lawsuits.
"Sometimes resolving cases more quickly is as much about secrecy as anything else," Clohessy said. "The longer a case drags out, the greater likelihood that a top church staffer will be deposed under oath."
Such a scenario is playing out in Philadelphia, where Monsignor William Lynn, 60, who served as secretary of clergy from 1992 to 2004 under former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted of endangering children and covering up the crimes by knowingly shuffling priests suspected of molestation from parish to parish. Two priests, an ex-priest and a former Catholic schoolteacher are charged in the same case with rape.
Bevilacqua, Rigali's predecessor, has been summoned to court Sept. 12 for a competency hearing to see if he should be deposed. Bevilacqua, 88, is a potential trial witness but church lawyers say he suffers from cancer and dementia and cannot testify.
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