Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia on Tuesday placed 21 priests on administrative leave following a damning grand jury report last month -- the second investigation of sex abuse by priests in recent years -- that said up to 37 clerics suspected of abuse remained in ministry.
Rigali suspended the priests on the eve of Ash Wednesday and the penitential season of Lent. In a statement,
Rigali expressed his "sorrow" for the abuse of children by clergy.
"I am truly sorry for the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse, as well as to the members of our community who suffer as a result of this great evil and crime," Rigali said.
The grand jury charged three priests
and a parochial school teacher with raping and assaulting boys in their care, while a former official with the Philadelphia Archdiocese was accused of allowing the abusive priests to have access to children. Most of the cases were beyond the statute of limitations and could not be prosecuted.
Several of the 37 priests cited by the grand jury had been suspended from ministry before Tuesday's action or were incapacitated and have not been in active ministry, the archdiocese said. Two other priests no longer serve in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and are members of religious orders, whose leaders have been notified of the accusations.
Eight priests cited by the grand jury were cleared by an independent examination, the archdiocese said.
The revelations have rocked the Catholic Church in Philadelphia
and threaten to reopen the abuse scandal that the U.S. hierarchy has tried to put behind it.
Shortly after the grand jury report was released, Rigali hired Gina Maisto Smith, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who has prosecuted child sexual assault cases for nearly two decades, to lead a review of the 37 cases.
"I was given the unlimited freedom to do a thorough review with full access to all files and documents," Smith said in the statement.
She will now lead a team that includes a "nationally renowned pediatrician" in the field of child abuse, a forensic psychiatrist and psychologist, an expert from the child advocacy community and other experts in investigating the remaining cases more fully.
"These administrative leaves are interim measures," Rigali stressed. "They are not in any way final determinations or judgments."
Tuesday's action was one of the most sweeping in the decade since widespread revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy began battering the Catholic Church, and they indicate that the church is still in the midst of what has been called the "Long Lent" of American Catholicism.