Critics slam former archbishop’s role in Pope Francis’ Philadelphia visit

Pope Francis acknowledges faithful as he parades on his way to celebrate Mass Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, Pool).
Pope Francis acknowledges faithful as he parades on his way to celebrate Mass Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, Pool). AP Photo/Matt Rourke, Pool

PHILADELPHIA – A former archbishop who retired amid allegations he put church interests ahead of clergy sexual abuse victims returned to the city over the weekend to help Pope Francis celebrate Mass, drawing criticism from advocates who said his visibility “rubs salt into deep wounds.”

The current archbishop, Charles Chaput, defended Cardinal Justin Rigali’s role in the service Saturday at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, saying Monday his predecessor did nothing wrong and is “always welcome to be here.”

Rigali, 80, sat to Chaput’s left and stood with the pope as he consecrated the Eucharist. A spokesman said he also participated in several other events with U.S. bishops, including the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families conference that brought the pope to Philadelphia.

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Rigali retired to the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2011, months after a grand jury accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of sheltering more than three dozen credibly accused priests and lying about it to victims and others.

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Chaput, who attended the pope’s meeting with sex abuse victims on Sunday, has removed several priests from church work since replacing Rigali. He bristled Monday when asked about Rigali at a post-papal visit news conference, asserting the grand jury reports released during the cardinal’s tenure did not accuse him of “doing anything inappropriate or not handling things appropriately.”

“In some ways we should get over this wanting to go back and blame, blame, blame,” said Chaput. “The church is happy to assume its responsibility, but I’m really quite tired of people making unjust accusations against people who are not to be blamed.”

Rigali said through a spokesman he was honoured to participate in the papal events and appreciates Chaput’s “supportive comments.”

Priests, nuns and canon lawyers who advocate for clergy abuse victims last week called on the pope to investigate Rigali’s child protection records through a tribunal planned to hold bishops accountable over failures in handling sex abuse cases.

WATCH: Pope Francis to hold members of church accountable for sexual abuse crimes

Another advocacy group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Rigali’s appearance was a reminder that “no matter how much you enable or hide predator priests, if you’re a bishop, you’ll always be welcome in and by the Catholic hierarchy.”

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Ana Maria Catanzaro, who led the archdiocese’s internal investigative panel on priest abuse, wrote in a 2011 essay that Rigali and his bishops had “failed miserably at being open and transparent” about problem priests.

After the 2011 grand jury report, Rigali wrote in a letter to parishioners that no priests in active ministry had an “admitted or established allegation” against them. He later suspended 21 of them.

Chaput disputed the portrayals of Rigali’s leadership, saying, “it’s important for people not to make judgments that are not based on facts.”