The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Tuesday that it had suspended 21 priests from active ministry in connection with accusations that involved sexual abuse or otherwise inappropriate behavior with minors.

The suspension of 21 priests comes after Justin Francis Rigali said there were no priests in active ministry with established allegations against them.

The mass suspension was the single-most sweeping in the history of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, which archives documents from the abuse scandal in dioceses across the country.

The archdiocese’s action follows a damning grand jury report issued Feb. 10 that accused the archdiocese of a widespread cover-up of predatory priests, stretching over decades, and said that as many as 37 priests remained active in the ministry despite credible accusations against them.

Of those 37 priests, 21 were suspended; three others already had been placed on administrative leave after the grand jury detailed accusations against them. Five others would have been suspended, the church said in a statement, but three are no longer active and two are no longer active in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The church said that in eight cases, no further investigation was warranted.

The announcement was a major embarrassment for Cardinal Justin Rigali, who, in response to the grand jury report, had initially said there were no priests in active ministry “who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them.”

A few days later, Cardinal Rigali placed three priests on administrative leave. His statement Tuesday did not explain why he had made his initial assurances nor did it say why the priests had not been suspended earlier.

“We may have to be asking, what did the cardinal know and when did he know it?” said Leonard Norman Primiano, a Roman Catholic and chairman of the religious studies department at Cabrini College in nearby Radnor, Pa. He described the mass suspension as “astonishing.”

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