Phila. priest who admits fondling girl is suspended
Monday, Mar. 28, 2005
By Nancy Phillips - Inquirer Staff Writer
The Catholic Church has suspended a former Center City pastor and
placed him under investigation after he admitted to The Inquirer
that he had repeatedly fondled a teenage girl decades ago.
The church acted after being told by The Inquirer of allegations
against Msgr. Philip J. Dowling on March 18. That day, church officials
barred him from public ministry and from wearing his collar in public.
Dowling, 75, who retired in July as pastor of St. Patrick parish,
told the newspaper that he had repeatedly engaged in "inappropriate"
touching of the girl, but denied abusing her sister, as both women
now allege. He admitted the touching was sexual. "It crossed
the bound," he said, "and I'm very sorry for the inappropriate
acts and touches."
The case raises questions about District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham's
long-running grand jury probe of sex abuse by clergy. The two sisters
gave detailed accounts to Abraham's office nearly three years ago.
But church officials say prosecutors never told them of this, even
though at the time Dowling was pastor of St. Patrick, a large congregation
just off Rittenhouse Square.
Nor, it seems, did the district attorney ever question Dowling.
The Inquirer interviewed Dowling three times this month after the
sisters, now in their 50s, gave a reporter detailed and painful
Both women described years of abuse; both recalled a day their
mother found the priest in their bed and sent him fleeing with shoes
and socks in hand. One sister remembered feeling so guilty that
she tried to confess to a priest; the other attempted suicide at
When asked if the women's allegations were true, Dowling said:
"It was affection leading into other things. It's been 40-some
years ago, and it's the only situation like that that ever occurred
in my life... . It's because I was very close to the family."
He denied only that the behavior had continued for as long as the
The priest sat in silence when a reporter told him one of the sisters
alleged an outright rape.
But in a later interview, Dowling said he had only "touched"
one girl when she was probably in her late teens.
Pat McMenamin, now 53 and living in Florida, said Dowling began
abusing her when she was 8 and her sister was 9. He was the family's
parish priest at Corpus Christi Church in the Allegheny West section
of North Philadelphia, and a frequent visitor to their home.
McMenamin said the assaults had continued until she was 14.
"Nobody thought anything about sending the parish priest up
to tuck the kids in," she said.
As a child, she said, she lay in guilty silence as Dowling climbed
into the bed she shared with her sister and took turns assaulting
"When he was doing his thing with her, I felt horrible for
not protecting her," McMenamin said. "I can still hear
my sister's voice, telling him, 'No, no. Stop.' "
McMenamin's sister, who asked that her name not be used, said she
recalled episodes of abuse from when she was 11 or 12 until she
Once, she said, the priest raped her - an allegation Dowling adamantly
denied in his later interview. He also denied touching the girls'
genitals and disputed other details of their allegations.
"Never would I admit it," he said when reminded of his
earlier words. "There are things that those ladies are saying
that I neither admit nor deny. Something inappropriate happened.
That's what I meant to say yesterday."
"Nothing happened when they were little girls, except for
signs of affection," the priest said. "... Memories going
back 40 years can dim. They had to forget or distort in their minds,
because it did not happen."
Frustrated by investigation
McMenamin contacted The Inquirer last month, saying she wanted
to tell her story publicly because of frustration with the pace
and secrecy of the grand jury probe.
She and her sister said they had spent hours with investigators
in 2002, detailing abuse by Dowling. McMenamin said she also had
given a long written statement.
Unlike some accusers in the priesthood scandal, the sisters did
not sue. McMenamin said the district attorney's investigators had
discouraged them from filing a lawsuit, saying it would make them
But they were not called before the grand jury. And until The Inquirer
began asking about the case, they said, they had heard nothing more
from Abraham's office. McMenamin said that a prosecutor had left
her a message Thursday, but that she had not reached him.
"I was led to believe something was going to be done,"
said McMenamin, a Navy veteran who works as a self-employed exterminator.
"Let us know. Do we have hope? What was the purpose if it wasn't
to give us some sense of justice?"
That question has lingered over the grand jury's secret proceedings.
Like the sisters' allegations, most of the abuse reported to the
panel is decades old, and the statute of limitations on any such
crimes has expired. So prosecutors have focused on whether the archdiocese
ever put children at risk by protecting accused priests or covering
up past crimes.
That did not appear to be an issue in the sisters' case: They said
they never reported the abuse to the church. While the District
Attorney's Office has examined allegations dating back decades,
prosecutors apparently never questioned Dowling or called him to
appear before the grand jury.
Abraham, who pledged in 2002 to investigate "all allegations
involving priests, whether they are dead, dismissed or retired,"
declined to comment last week. Through spokeswoman Cathie Abookire,
she cited the grand jury's secrecy and a court-imposed gag order.
The archdiocese, which encompasses Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania
suburbs, said the allegations described by The Inquirer were the
only ones known to have been made against Dowling in his 49-year
By restricting Dowling's ministry, the archdiocese stopped short
of removing him, pending a church investigation, spokeswoman Donna
M. Farrell said. In the last half-century, the archdiocese has said,
47 of its priests, living and dead, have been "credibly"
accused of sexually abusing minors.
Though two powerful institutions, the church and the District Attorney's
Office, have vowed in recent years to root out sex abuse by clergy,
the Dowling case suggests it may be difficult, if not impossible,
to learn the full extent of the scandal.
The allegations against Dowling, for one, seemed to slip below
the radar of both law enforcement and the church.
Interviews with Dowling
On March 16, a reporter interviewed Dowling in his modest home
in the city's Juniata section. He sat quietly in a living room decorated
with a crucifix and a picture of the Pope.
"I really don't know what to say," he said when first
told in detail of the women's allegations. "I'd rather not
In an interview the next day, Dowling said he hoped the church
would not learn of the allegations: "If this comes to their
attention, they must act, and the action will not help anyone."
He noted that in recent years, the archdiocese had moved more quickly
against accused priests.
"There's no weighing of the seriousness of the effects and
the consequences," Dowling said. "... If I acknowledge
it, the diocese would have to act."
He said he was baffled that the women had complained. "The
family remained close friends even after the situation that you're
Dowling said the allegations would devastate those who still turned
to him for spiritual advice. "I've had hundreds and hundreds
of people who I've worked with who hold me in high esteem,"
he said. That morning, he said, a woman had invited him to her autistic
son's first Communion.
As for the sisters, the priest said he would "be happy"
to meet with them and apologize.
McMenamin, told of Dowling's initial admission, exclaimed: "I've
waited for this day forever. I'm shook to my core... . My heart
"It's an exhilarating sense of freedom in one way," she
said. "... Here he is confronted with his own sin, and he says,
'Yes,' and yet the minimization is very hurtful."
For Dowling to say the abuse had grown out of "affection,"
she said, was offensive.
Over the years, she and her sister said, Dowling fondled them,
touched their genitals, had them touch him, and ejaculated. "That
was affection?" asked McMenamin, who said she had tried to
kill herself at 13 by swallowing sleeping pills and a bottle of
Her sister, a mother of four who still lives in the Philadelphia
area, said: "I don't remember if it started in 1961 or 1962,
but I remember exactly what I wore, and I remember exactly how it
started to happen.
"As God as my judge," she said, it was far worse than
what Dowling was now admitting.
"I have lived with this for 40 years," the woman said,
weeping. "It was a dirty secret."
As a child, she said, she came to believe that what had happened
made her guilty of a "sin of impurity." Once, she went
to confess this to a priest.
But as she knelt in the darkness of the confessional, she said,
she realized that the priest on the other side of the partition
So she walked out, she said, taking her secret with her.
McMenamin recalled how, when she was 12, their mother found the
priest half-naked in bed with her sister, then 13 - and chased him
from the house.
"He was running down the steps - believe it or not, with his
shoes and socks in his hand - and my mother was screaming,"
McMenamin recalled. Her sister recalled the priest's scrambling
to pick up his clothes.
Their mother, now deceased, made them promise not to speak of it,
saying, 'Don't tell your father. He'll kill him,' " McMenamin
But the priest kept visiting.
"As a child," McMenamin said, "here is a man we
believe is endowed to change a piece of bread into Christ and wine
into his blood. That's a powerful thing. Who are we going to tell
that this man who could make Christ out of a piece of bread was
doing this? It was our little lonely word against his."
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How Accusations Against a Priest Surfaced: Key Dates
April 2002: Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announces
a grand jury probe of sex abuse by clergy and vows to examine all
allegations, no matter how old. Investigators begin interviewing
dozens of witnesses.
Later in 2002: Two sisters tell the district attorney's investigators
that Msgr. Philip J. Dowling assaulted them repeatedly, starting
before they were teenagers and continuing for several years when
he was the family's priest in the early 1960s.
July 2004: Dowling retires as pastor of St. Patrick Church at 20th
and Locust Streets and is given the title of pastor emeritus.
March 2005: The sisters repeat their allegations against Dowling
to The Inquirer. In interviews, Dowling admits he repeatedly engaged
in "inappropriate touching" of one girl and denies other
aspects of the women's accounts.
March 18: The newspaper asks the archdiocese about the allegations.
Church officials, saying this is the first they have heard of it,
inform Dowling, 75, of the allegations and place him in restricted
ministry, meaning he cannot say Mass, perform the sacraments, or
wear his clerical collar in public. A church investigation begins.