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Archdiocese Of Philadelphia Suspends 21 Priests In Renewed Probe Of Sex Abuse Claims

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - The Philadelphia District Attorney calls the suspension of 21 priests 'unprecedented.'

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Tuesday the suspension from ministry of 21 priests cited by a Philadelphia Grand Jury report last month as ducking what the panel believed were credible accusations of abuse.

A statement issued by the Archdiocese says Cardinal Justin Rigali has suspended the priests from active ministry pending a further review of allegations of child sex abuse raised against the priests but dismissed by an archdiocesan review board which ruled those complaints not credible.

Read the full statement of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (.pdf)

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams calls the move a good first step.

"Where those investigations go, and how they result will be more definitive of what the actions of the Archdiocese will be," Williams said.

On February 16th, Rigali announced that three priests -- Father Joseph DiGregoria, Father Joseph Gallagher, and Father Stephen Perzan, all of whom were specifically named in the Grand Jury report -- were being suspended from public exercise of their ministry pending a second review of their cases.

At that time, Rigali stated that the Archdiocese planned a re-review of the 34 other cases of priest child sex abuse cited by the grand jury's review of those files as being credible (see related story).

According to the statement from the Archdiocese, five other priests would have been subject to suspension, but one is already on leave and two others are said to be incapacitated and have not been in active ministry.

Two others are members of a religious order which has not been identified and are no longer serving in the archdiocese, according to the statement, but their superiors have been notified as well as bishops of the dioceses where they are living.

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The Archdiocese says the eight remaining priests cited by the Grand Jury will not be suspended and that the initial independent examination of those cases found no further investigation warranted.

Rigali's actions Tuesday were recommended by Gina Maisto Smith, a former Philadelphia assistant DA who handled sex abuse crimes while a prosecutor. She was hired last month after the Grand Jury report to advise the Archdiocese on these matters (see related story).

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests ("SNAP"), calls Rigali's move a long overdue step which will make children safer in the short term.

But he says much more remains to be done.

"Suspending credibly accused child molesters is just a smart defense move and it's great PR and it's something, frankly, that Rigali has no choice but to do," Clohessy told KYW Newsradio.

Cardinal Justin Rigali's statement in part reads: "I know that for many people their trust in the church has been shaken." "The 2011 grand jury report … presented us with serious concerns that demand a decisive response."

"Most of us who were abused think we are alone," Barbra Blaine, President of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said.

She is upset with the Archdiocese's decision to only release the names of the 21 priests suspended to their effected parishes.

The Archdiocese has declined to name the priests who were removed from active ministry. Sources say they began getting notifications Monday morning and were told to clear out of their parishes by 5 p.m. Monday.

"We will be doing that on Ash Wednesday and we will be doing that this following Sunday." Archdiocese spokesperson Donna Farrell said.

"If names were released (made public) we suspect more victims would come forward," Blaine said.

Lawyer Gina Maisto Smith has been hired by the church to investigate the allegations.

As a former city assistant district attorney, she prosecuted child sexual abuse cases.

"It's very difficult before a thorough investigation is done to make a decision and announce a name," Maisto Smith said.

The announcement came on the eve of Ash Wednesday, the start of the Roman Catholic Church's 40-day observance of Lent, a time of penance, prayer and sacrifice.

One Catholic journalist who is following the latest developments quotes one veteran priest as saying, "We are in the midst of an earthquake" as news of the removal of the priests began to circulate in the archdiocese Tuesday.

Also, due to the statute of limitations, none of the priests will face criminal charges.

Reported by Mark Abrams, KYW Newsradio; Todd Quinones, CBS 3

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