A day after suspending 21 priests named by a grand jury as child molestation suspects, Cardinal Justin Rigali on Wednesday called on the faithful to pray for healing in the church and for sexual abuse victims.
Rigali spoke to several hundred Roman Catholics packing the pews and aisles for a noon Mass at the city's grand basilica on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season of penance.
Outside, about a dozen protesters carried placards and signs criticizing Rigali and Monsignor William Lynn, a former church official charged last month with endangering children and covering up the crimes by knowingly shifting priests suspected of molestation from parish to parish.
"Rigali + Lynn (equals) Partners in Sin" read one sign, while another said, "Church officials covered up sexual abuse."
On Tuesday, 21 priests named as child molestation suspects by a grand jury were placed on leave. Last month, the district attorney's office charged two priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher with raping boys in the 1990s.
Since 2002, when the national abuse crisis erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston, dioceses have barred hundreds of accused clergy from public church work or removed the men permanently from the priesthood. The allegations against the Pennsylvania priests stand out because they come years after the U.S. bishops reformed their child protection policies, promising to keep potential abusers from children.
During his homily at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Rigali said, "Whoever harms a child must remember the words of Jesus: It would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."
While stopping short of an outright apology, the cardinal told worshippers, "I personally renew my deep sorrow to the victims of sexual abuse in the community of the church and to all others, including so many faithful priests who suffer as the result of this great evil and crime."
He stated that "the protection of children is tantamount" and said the archdiocese is working "to make every effort possible to prevent these evil acts and to protect children from harm.
"In this spirit, as I announced yesterday, the archdiocese is having re-examined cases of concern to the grand jury about allegations of abuse of minors or boundary issues by some priests," he said. "We are likewise re-evaluating the way we handle allegations."
So far, however, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has yet to publicly release the names of the 21 priests.
Ash Wednesday, which focuses on sin and forgiveness in Catholic theology, was a stunning moment for Rigali to address the very uncomfortable issue of clergy sex abuse.
"Lent is a time when the church calls people to acts of penance and repentance, but here we have the church in need of repentance and penance. It's a bit ironic," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
The protesters holding signs and handing out leaflets outside the cathedral during Mass said the church has offered lip service but has done little to help emotionally fragile victims or ferret out pedophile priests.
"Asking for prayers is fine. Asking victims, witnesses and whistleblowers to call police is much better," said Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "That's what protects kids _ when adults overcome their fear and shame and help law enforcement catch criminals. That's what Rigali should be prodding his flock to do."
Marie McDonald of Philadelphia, leaving Mass with her forehead bearing the distinctive cross of black ashes that are part of the Ash Wednesday ritual, said the abuse scandal has shaken her trust in the church and its leaders, but she remains faithful.
"The priests, the bishops, the archbishops, they're all human beings. They're not gods," she said. "I believe in the word of God because God is infallible. Men are not."
Associated Press writer Rachell Zoll contributed to this report.