Cardinal Justin Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, should have suspended the priests suspected of paedophilia much sooner, campaigners say. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP
The Philadelphia archdiocese has suspended 21 Roman Catholic priests who were named as suspected child abusers in a scathing grand jury report last month.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, said the priests had been removed from ministry while their cases were reviewed. The names of the priests were not being released, a spokesman for the archdiocese said.
"These have been difficult weeks since the release of the grand jury report, difficult most of all for victims of sexual abuse but also for all Catholics and for everyone in our community," Rigali said.
The two-year grand jury investigation into abuse in the archdiocese of Philadelphia resulted in charges against two priests, a former priest and a Catholic schoolteacher who are accused of raping boys. A former high-ranking church official was accused of transferring problem priests to new parishes without revealing they had been the subject of sex abuse complaints.
Since 2002, when the national abuse crisis erupted in the archdiocese of Boston, US dioceses have barred hundreds of accused clergymen from public church work or removed them permanently from the priesthood. However, the archdiocese of Philadelphia has only taken action now.
The grand jury named 37 priests who remained in active ministry despite credible allegations of sexual abuse. After the release of the report, the second such investigation in the city in six years, Rigali vowed to take its calls for further reforms seriously.
In addition to the 21 priests placed on leave on Tuesday, three others named by the grand jury were suspended a week after the report's release in February. Five other priests would have been suspended but one was already on leave, two were "incapacitated and have not been in active ministry" and two were no longer priests in the archdiocese but were members of another religious order that was not identified.
"The archdiocese has notified the superiors of their religious orders and the bishops of the dioceses where they are residing," the cardinal said.
The remaining eight priests of the 37 named in the report were not being put on leave because the latest examination of their cases "found no further investigation is warranted", Rigali said.
"I know that for many people their trust in the church has been shaken," he said. "I pray that the efforts of the archdiocese to address these cases of concern and to re-evaluate our way of handling allegations will help rebuild that trust."
In 2005, a grand jury said there was evidence of abuse by at least 63 priests and that church officials had transferred offenders to other parishes and dioceses. The Philadelphia archdiocese formed a panel to handle abuse complaints, but the 2011 grand jury found it mostly worked to protect the church, not the victims.
Rigali responded by appointing former city child abuse prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith to re-examine complaints made against the serving priests that internal church investigators had previously been unable to substantiate.
"Cardinal Rigali's actions are as commendable as they are unprecedented and they reflect his concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of those in his care," said the district attorney, Seth Williams. "We appreciate that the archdiocese has acknowledged the value of the report and seen fit to take some of the steps called for by the grand jury."
Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Rigali should have suspended the priests much sooner.
"There's a simple reason that dozens of credibly accused child molesters have recklessly been kept in unsuspecting parishes for years, instead of being promptly suspended. It's because Rigali and his top aides want it that way," he said.
"They have taken and still take steps to protect, above all else, themselves, their secrets and their staff, instead of their flock. That's what two separate Philadelphia grand juries, working with two prosecutors, after two long investigations, found over the last six years."
Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org said Rigali's move to suspend the priests "was forced on him by the Philadelphia grand jury report, and is an act of desperation, not transparency".
He said: "In Philadelphia, a Catholic official had to be indicted before the archdiocese finally began to comply with its own policies. We have no reason to believe that Philadelphia is unusual. In other US dioceses, credibly accused priests are no doubt still in ministry