After a devastating sex-abuse scandal, can the area’s newly ordained Catholic priests bring a semblance of trust and normalcy to their Church? Now in the midst of its bicentennial celebration, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is praying they can.

After a devastating sex-abuse scandal, can the area’s newly ordained Catholic priests bring a semblance of trust and normalcy to their Church? Now in the midst of its bicentennial celebration, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is praying they can.

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

It’s an initiation of the highest—and holiest—order. Every spring, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ordains new priests at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City. It remains a rite that supersedes anything “those unfamiliar with the calling could ever understand,” says Brian Kean, a deacon of the Eucharist at the May 19 mass.

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Kean is starting his final year at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. Then he, too, will be ordained. For now, he pictures himself among the ordination candidates, lined up, prostrate, face to the marble floor in front of the altar. A week prior, he made deacon—another step forward. “You can’t help but think ahead,” he says. “The seminary’s goal is to train priests, so you want to finish. I think I’ll be overwhelmed with emotion to be in the same place next spring.”

Amidst the glitter and gold of the Basilica—the gilded arches, the pillars of Philadelphia’s palace built for God—perhaps it’s easy to forget the scourge that was the clergy’s far-reaching sex-abuse scandal, which broke in Boston five years ago and has since left an ominous stain on the Roman Catholic Church and religious faith in general. For now, at least, it’s veiled by celebration. To the rear of the church, seminarians of all colors and creeds, dressed in simple black-and-white gowns, occupy folding chairs set out to accommodate the overflow. Each is waiting his turn—literally and figuratively—at the altar. The two-and-a-half-hour ceremony is at once solemn, exhausting and exhilarating.

After lying prostrate, the seven members of the Class of 2007 kneel while other attending priests dressed in white-and-gold vestments parade past, placing both hands atop each head and praying before moving down the line. The seven-elect wear pure white. They fold their hands. Some sweat; others cry.

Finally, one by one, they kneel directly before Cardinal Justin Rigali, the Archbishop of Philadelphia. He anoints each of their cupped hands, then closes them. Rigali and other auxiliary bishops offer each a fraternal kiss before they move to the altar to break bread.

“It gave me a sense of just how big it is, and yet how small you are,” recalls Rev. Keith Chylinski, one of the seven. “Lying prostrate is so powerful. You’re in total submission, laying yourself before the Lord, who then evokes his grace. The laying of the hands goes back to the time of Christ, so I was humbled to inherit what [the apostle] Peter inherited.”

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IN PHILADELPHIA, the nation’s ongest investigation of sex abuse by clergy played out in a three-year Grand Jury investigation that ended with a devastating report issued in late 2005. On its website’s Victim Assistance page, the Archdiocese lists 63 priests who have been recognized by the Church as abusers. The entries include photos and career assignments. Some of the 63 had direct service assignments at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. One, John Delli, a former professor and academic dean there, is alleged to have molested an altar boy for seven years beginning in the late 1970s. He’s been defrocked (or laicized) along with 24 others listed on the Archdiocese site.

Of the remaining cases, five are classified as “pending” and the rest have either died or accepted a life of prayer and penance in lieu of active ministry. Among the latter group is Matthew Kornacki, an administrator who was indicted in May 2004 for storing child pornography on his personal computer at the seminary.

The Archdiocese’s Prayer and Penance Program was established in the spring of 2005 at Villa Saint Joseph in Darby, Delaware County, for the supervision of priests accused of sexually abusing a minor. Essentially it’s house arrest for suspended clergy. As of September 2006, the Archdiocese reports, 20 men live at the 55-bed residential facility. Their average age is 72. Publicly, they can’t represent themselves as priests, and any time away from the annex must be accounted for.

Defrocking is the most serious action the Roman Catholic Church can take against a priest—and it’s rare. The 25 men who underwent Vatican-approved laicizings for their roles in the scandal are no longer supported or monitored by the Church. In all cases, the alleged abuse occurred decades ago, so the time limit on criminal prosecutions has expired. The one exception is James Behan, an Oblate priest (which is why he doesn’t appear on the Archdiocese site) who pled guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and corruption of minors. He was sentenced to probation, though prosecutors argued for 11-22 years in prison.

Because the others haven’t been convicted of a crime, they aren’t subject to public scrutiny as registered sex offenders under Megan’s Law. Even so, the Archdiocese—which denied requests to interview anyone at Villa Saint Joseph—has revitalized the Victim Assistance program of its Office for Child and Youth Protection. It’s hired additional administrators and staff, launched a public outreach media campaign and empowered assistance coordinators to approve financial expenditures for emergency situations. Victims are encouraged to call its toll-free number (888-800-8780).

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Last September, Cardinal Rigali invited Archdiocesan priests to join him and the auxiliary bishops in the auditorium of Saint Charles Seminary to hear victims’ accounts of clergy sexual abuse. And the Archdiocese continues its support of the Saint John Vianney Center in Downingtown, which provides psychiatric/psychological care and psycho-educational services, including an intensive residential program and transition training. It also helps with re-entry preparations for clergy, seminarians and Protestant ministers.

THE ARCHDIOCESE’S effort to step up its response to the scandal aside, the matter boils down to the priests. To their flock, they are the Church—its past, present and future.

“All of us are members of the Church, but the priests have a significant role,” says Rev. Keith Chylinski, whose Main Line roots include service as a deacon at Saint Denis in Havertown. “We’re the ones who’ve been called to represent Christ. When I was ordained, I married the Church.”

Like the others, Chylinski had a four-week respite after his ordination. Then he promptly reported to his first assignment, Saint Anselm, a parish in far Northeast Philadelphia with 3,000 Irish, Polish and Italian members. Chylinski’s family background is Polish and Irish. On this summer Sunday, the newly ordained priest already has celebrated noon mass at Saint Anselm. He was also one of 80 priests—old and new—at a 2:30 p.m. mass at Saint Anastasius for the installation of regional vicar Monsignor Herb Bevard. This evening, the 35-year-old will celebrate another mass at Saint Anselm.

Chylinski was born in Upstate New York. In the mid-1980s, his family moved to Strafford. After graduating from Conestoga High School, he majored in performance music at Temple University. He was a music director at a parish in Lansdale before entering the seminary.

Though he was active at Our Lady of Assumption in Wayne, volunteering with the church’s youth group and singing in the choir, he was never an altar boy—and he didn’t attend an Archdiocesan high school. “It’s like I defied all the odds,” he says.

One day, Our Lady of Assumption priest Monsignor Gregory Parlante (now pastor at St. Cornelius in Chadds Ford) asked Chylinski if he’d ever thought about becoming a priest. “Honestly, my answer was no,” he says. “But something struck me inside. The only way to put it into words is to think about what married couples are asked: ‘How did you know he/she was the one?’ The answer is always, ‘I just knew.’ Well, it was the same internal sense that maybe this is what I was supposed to do in life.”

Chylinski kept quiet about it at first. But whenever he told anyone, he received affirmation in return. Many said they weren’t surprised. “I think others saw in me the qualities that translate into living a priest’s life,” he says.

Chylinski didn’t rush into anything. Ten years passed before he enrolled in the seminary. “That priest planted the seed, but it took me awhile to come to terms with it,” he says.

The first year at the seminary wasn’t easy, but Chylinski and his fellow seminarians stuck it out. When the planes hit the Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Chylinski was on his way to a funeral for a colleague who’d lost his battle with cystic fibrosis. Five months later, the clergy scandal broke, with the Boston Globe driving the probe. “For decades, within the U.S. Catholic Church, sexual misbehavior by priests was shrouded in secrecy—at every level,” it first reported.

“We were being questioned from the outside, but [inside] we always had hope,” Chylinski says. “As difficult as it was, if this is what God was calling me to, I knew I couldn’t be at peace anywhere else.”

Despite all the bad news—revelations of massive internal cover-ups by high-ranking clergy, the shuffling of offending priests from parish to parish—no one left the seminary that first year. To help sustain his devotion, Chylinski studied church history, which is full of challenges and division.

“Every century had new problems,” he says. “Some were huge, but still the Church survived—which proves it’s not just a human institution. God still guides us even when we fall.”

SAINT CHARLES Borromeo Seminary’s motto is “A Proud Past and a Bright Future.” A holy sanctuary on the corner of Lancaster and City Line avenues, the 75-acre property is marked by the white papal cross that was once on the altar during Pope John Paul II’s 1979 mass on Logan Square. The facility’s 19 buildings total 630,000 square feet, and its long hallways, religious artwork and deafening silence provide the ideal setting for rigorous study and devotion.

While there’s room for 400, today just 150 are enrolled in the college and theology divisions. In 1960, total seminarian enrollment peaked at 534. If Saint Charles Borromeo were a factory, it would’ve closed long ago, along with much of the rest of industrialized Philadelphia. But it has endured, and today it still serves as a sort of boot camp, training priests as defenders in the ongoing war against the sanctity of the Church. And its influence remains worldwide in scope, preparing chaplains for all branches of the military while turning out laypeople skilled in duties once performed only by clergy.

In fact, one could argue that it’s a fitting time for positive change within the Church. As Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary celebrates its 175th year of educating men for the priesthood, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is in the midst of a yearlong bicentennial celebration that began in April. Festivities include the “Amazing Race for Grace” on Sept. 29, when kids will learn about the Archdiocese’s history with a scavenger hunt at local historical spots in the city; the event culminates in a closing liturgy at the seminary. On Oct. 10, the Bicentennial Chorus and Orchestra, comprised of several hundred of the Archdiocese’s Catholic school students, perform at the Kimmel Center. And following the actual 200th anniversary on April 8, 2008, there will be a closing mass at Villanova University Pavilion April 13. A commemorative book, Our Faith-Filled Heritage, will be released as well.

Today, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia serves 1.45 million Catholics in 270 parishes within a five-county radius. When established in 1808 by Pope Pius VII, it had jurisdiction over all of Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware.

During the first half of the 19th century, Philadelphia’s Catholic population boomed as impoverished Irish Catholic immigrants escaped homeland poverty and poured into the region. German Catholics also arrived, emulating earlier German Protestant minorities who answered William Penn’s invitation to settle in Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Diocese had 17 parishes in 1850, 28 by 1860 and 36 by 1870. As the Catholic population expanded, more schools, churches and priests were needed.

Francis Patrick Kenrick, Philadelphia’s third bishop, opened the first diocesan seminary in 1832, with seminarians initially meeting in his 5th Street home. During Kenrick’s 18-year term, 114 priests were ordained. In 1863, Bishop James F. Wood purchased land just outside the city limits in Montgomery County to build Saint Charles Borromeo, which was completed in 1871.

Monsignor Joseph Prior has been rector at the seminary since June 2004. He cancelled an interview and seminary tour for this story, then wouldn’t reschedule when asked to address how the scandal was handled at the seminary. He also wouldn’t discuss what curricular or other changes have resulted that might better prepare young men for the priesthood.

For his part, Chylinski says the seminary addressed the scandal, but he wouldn’t elaborate except to say that seminarians were told to be honest with themselves and God. “During our normal conferences, we talked about [the scandal] quite a bit,” he says. “That, I think, was healthy. It was put into our mindset, and opening up about it helped us all grow personally. It was addressed—and it continues to be.”

As a young seminarian, Deacon Brian Kean recalls the annual chrism mass, where priests join the bishop in renewing their vows. At a pivotal point in his homily, then-Archbishop Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua emphasized that no one should be ashamed to call himself a Catholic priest.

“We acknowledge the scandal, but now we move on,” says Kean, 27, an only child from Bucks County. “In the seminary, the scandal was seen as it was—a wound to the Church. But for many of us, it was a confirmation of our callings. The sins the priests committed were terrible, horrible. But the priesthood is also filled with those who want to serve the people of God.”

In high school and college, Kean labored over whether a path to the priesthood was his true calling. He was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic family, attended Catholic schools and mass on Sundays. He was an altar boy and worked four years in the rectory at Saint Frances Cabrini, namesake of Cabrini College in Radnor. “Those years really stick with me,” Kean says. “I could see how the priests lived day-to-day. ”

But his fears persisted—fears of social stigmas, of how his friends would react and receive him. Then there were the issues of not marrying, celibacy and having few contemporaries pursue a similar lifestyle. “As there are less and less priests, young men see less and less of the priesthood. So that’s why there are hesitations and fears,” says Kean. “Like any teenager, I was afraid of that. I tended to run from it.”

Then, before Christmas dinner in 1999, he told his extended family he was leaving East Stroudsburg University and enrolling in the seminary. His parents already knew. “Since then, I’ve been amazed to see others pursue the priesthood,” he says. “It proves that, for young people, the Catholic Church is alive.”

Yet there are still worries that the damage wrought by the sex-abuse scandal is irreparable “It hurt a lot of our ability to trust,” Rev. Chylinski says.

Perhaps only God knows the real impact Chylinski and the rest of his newly ordained brethren can impart. But Chylinski also knows it’s not about him.

“Jesus said, ‘Come to me,’” he says. “And that is what it’s all about.”

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