Sex abuse charges put Philly's Catholic prosecutor front and center

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announces a new report Feb. 10 by a grand jury investigating clergy sex abuse. (CNS photo/Matthew Gambino, Catholic Standard & Times)

PHILADELPHIA -- For Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, leading the sex abuse prosecution that has roiled this city’s Catholic community is not an attack on the church in which he was raised, and to which he remains deeply committed.

But the Philadelphia native says he is determined to bring to justice the “evil” clergy his office accuses of harming children.

Williams announced criminal charges Feb. 10 against three priests and a parochial school teacher for allegedly raping boys in the late 1990s. In addition, Msgr. William Lynn, the archdiocese’s former secretary of clergy, was charged with endangering the welfare of a child because he allegedly transferred abusive priests without warning schools and parishes. All four clergy have been suspended by the archdiocese.

Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali has also pledged to reexamine other cases flagged by the grand jury, which said in a scathing report that at least 37 other priests remain in ministry “despite solid, credible allegations of abuse.”

“I tell people that this is not about the Catholic Church. I love my church” said Williams in an interview. “This is not ... some form of Catholic-bashing. This is about evil men being held accountable for their evil behavior.”

But some Catholics wonder if Williams, who remains active in his West Philadelphia parish and on various church committees, will feel torn between his legal mission and his faith.

Williams said he isn’t troubled by prosecuting the clergy and school teacher for raping children. “All reasonable people would come to that conclusion,” he said.But Williams is bothered by the thought that some parts of the church, such as schools and youth organizations, might suffer because potential contributors grow reluctant to donate.

Adopted at 18 months by devout Catholics Rufus and Imelda Williams, the district attorney worships in the same West Philadelphia church building where he was baptized, served as an altar boy, and married.

The district attorney, who was elected in 2009, is on the board of Catholic Social Services and the St. Martin de Porres Foundation, which supports lay leadership among African-American Catholics, and participated in a study of the future of churches in his neighborhood.

Williams also spent many years on the parish council of the former St. Carthage Church, and was instrumental in helping the church merge with another local parish to become St. Cyprian.

But he is proudest, he said, of the carnival he organized on church grounds. “The goal, of course, was to raise money for the church, but the accomplishment was a huge undertaking. People in the community had the opportunity to have a lot of fun on our church grounds for a week every year for 10 years.”

Williams has also been close to the Catholic hierarchy, serving on an advice panel for Rigali. Williams lauded Rigali’s actions in the wake of the grand jury report. “I commended the cardinal on his actions and his words. I look forward to working with the cardinal and others for the protection of children,” Williams said.

The district attorney’s connection with Rigali has raised questions in the minds of some Catholics, however.

“The question I have to ask is that if he (comes to) feel Cardinal Rigali is somehow involved, how he could face him?” said Leonard Norman Primiano, a Catholic who heads the Department of Religious Studies at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa. “I’d be curious as to how this will affect his relationship (with Rigali).”

Fr. James Bajorek, pastor of St. John Chrysostom Church in Wallingford, Pa., has worked closely with Williams on church business.

“He’s very talented, he’s articulate,” Bajorek said. “He is absolutely committed to his parish, the Catholic Church, his family first, but also the community.”

Williams brings the same drive for fairness that informed his work in his local Catholic community to his current task, the priest said. “He needs to make sure the law is followed,’ said Bajorek. “Yet this is about his church family, and not showing favoritism.”

Terence McKiernan, who tracks abuse cases nationally as the head of the website, commends Williams in prosecuting the abuse cases “aggressively.”

McKiernan said that “it’s got to make people uneasy that he’s got that strong relationship with Rigali,” but that Williams is “breaking new ground” in going after not only allegedly abusive clergy, but also the monsignor who supervised them.

Any church leader who had a role in handling the cases of clergy who were found guilty of abuse is going to feel chilled by that move, said McKiernan. “Taking that step is evidence that he’s serious ... having started, he will finish the job.”

For his part, Williams is hopeful the current wave of indictments and the grand jury report will have a positive effect on the church he loves.

“From ridding the church of these bad priests, to more people becoming informed, to more victims coming forward ... this is a clarion call,” he said.

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