Chicago archdiocese prepares for release of historical files on sex abuse

by Joshua J. McElwee

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To prepare for next week's release of historical files on 30 priests removed from ministry following allegations of sexual abuse, Chicago Cardinal Francis George has taken a defensive stance on his handling of the issue, asserting that the public narrative "has been largely fashioned by plaintiffs' lawyers and other activists."

Reliance on these sources, George wrote, "deliberately distorts or ignores points that would mitigate the charge of Archdiocesan neglect."

In a letter to be released in Chicago's 356 parishes Sunday, George says he wants to "put on the public record" several facts about his and the archdiocese's handling of accused priests.

Among one of those facts is that when he was appointed Chicago's archbishop in 1997, he was unaware of the actions of one of the city's most notorious priest abusers, he writes.

George states that when he took over the archdiocese from the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, he did not know of accusations against Daniel McCormack, an archdiocesan priest who pleaded guilty in 2007 of sexually abusing five young men and has been the subject since of dozens of civil suits leading to tens of millions of dollars in settlements.

George writes that McCormack "had a reputation as a dedicated priest and an effective pastor."

"He had been ordained by Cardinal Bernardin, who vetted his seminary record," George states.

"[McCormack] was already, before I became Archbishop, appointed to a seminary faculty, a position of trust," George continues. "He was dedicated to ministry in African American parishes in poor neighborhoods. He was trusted and admired."

George's letter was sent Monday to all priests in the archdiocese and to the editors of the bulletins of each of its parishes. It was accompanied by a cover letter, written by Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Francis Kane, that directs the priests and editors to either hand out the cardinal's letter after Mass this Sunday or print it with the weekly parish bulletin.

NCR obtained copies of both documents.

McCormack, who is currently confined to an Illinois state mental health facility pending judgment of whether he should be committed there indefinitely as a public danger, was first arrested by police and held without charge in September 2005. Abuse advocates have questioned whether the archdiocese, which kept McCormack in ministry until he was rearrested in early 2006, adequately evaluated the danger he posed to children.

Since his 2007 guilty plea, there have been multiple civil settlements by victims claiming to have been abused by the priest, some known to have cost the archdiocese more the $10 million.

The latest accusation, the first involving a man who was willing to make his name public, was made in December. Darryl McArthur, a 27-year-old African-American, alleged McCormack abused him in the mid-'90s at a parish on Chicago's South Side.

Like other civil cases the archdiocese has settled, McArthur and the archdiocese are working toward a settlement through an advisory panel of former county judges and attorneys.

According to the abuse-tracking website, McCormack has at least 23 known accusers.

George's naming of Bernardin in his letter is unusual in a church system where priests and bishops are usually deferential to one another and careful not to blame others by name.

George, who celebrated 50 years of priesthood in December, is also likely to be replaced as Chicago's archbishop by Pope Francis sometime soon. On Jan. 16, the cardinal turns 77 years of age, two years past the normal retirement age of 75 for bishops.

The Chicago archdiocese's cover letter does not state the day the priest files will be made public or what they will contain. Catholic News Service reports that the release is expected around Jan. 15.

George's letter also emphasizes, in Italic and underlined letters, that the files do not concern new cases of abuse, but only those that "took place years ago and many of the priests involved are dead."

"It is important for you and your people to be prepared for this event since it will place the Archdiocese in the spotlight," the cover letter tells the archdiocesan priests and parish bulletin editors. "It is very important for your people, so please be sure it is available."

George's letter states that the incidents the new files cover "happened decades ago, perpetrated by priests whom neither I nor many younger clergy have ever met or talked to."

He writes that the "general discipline of the clergy weakened during the years when sex abuse was most prevalent, during the 1970's and 1980's."

"Chicago followed the now well-known national trends," he continues. "In the late eighties, however, the Archdiocese began to put its house in some order and started, sometimes hesitantly, to follow the path of accountability and transparency."

"Through the nineties, Archdiocesan policy still allowed some perpetrators a restricted form of ministry, with monitoring, that kept them from regular contact with minors," he states.

"In 2002, the National Bishops' Conference decided that zero tolerance was the only certain means to be sure children would not be molested, and I removed from all public ministry those who had been allowed some pastoral work under the rules in effect under my predecessor," he states.

"So far as can be known from all our records, there is no priest in public ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago who has been found to have sexually abused a child, no matter when the abuse took place," he continues.

The cardinal also states that "accountability to the civil authorities constitutionally responsible for the protection of children is part of the life of the Church here."

"The names of priests known to have abused a minor are published on the Archdiocesan website, and the Archdiocese will offer more information in the future," he states. "But publishing for all to read the actual records of these crimes raises transparency to a new level. It will be helpful, we pray, for some, but painful for many."

Turning to McCormack's case, George says the "first association" he had of the priest with sexual abuse was when he was first arrested in September 2005.

While he says the archdiocese began to investigate the case then, he also says "the investigation was hampered because the various offices involved did not consistently share what they knew with each other or with me."

"From the time he was arrested and released to the time that he was arrested a second time and eventually pled guilty, no one involved in investigating the allegation, not even the review board that struggled with their justified concerns, told me they thought he was guilty," George states.

"The response, in retrospect, was not always adequate to all the facts, but a mistake is not a cover up," he says.

The cardinal also states that funding for the settlements of sexual abuse victims "comes from a stream of revenue entirely separate from regular donations or investments," saying the archdiocese is using sale of undeveloped properties to fund the settlements.

"Once again, I apologize to all those who have been harmed by these crimes and this scandal, the victims themselves, most certainly, but also rank and file Catholics who have been shamed by the actions of some priests and bishops," he concludes.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR national correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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