Editorial: Attorney general's report on Catholic clergy child sex abuse lays out a shameful chapter in Illinois history
Published in Op Eds
The Illinois attorney general’s gut-wrenching 696-page report on Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Illinois is illustrated, incongruously but perhaps necessarily, with aspirational images of the Prairie State: cornfields at sunrise, the shimmering waters of Lake Michigan, sunsets over lakes and barns, gorgeous stained glass windows.
But the text, which is agonizing reading, reveals a much uglier side of Illinois.
It lists the names and circumstances surrounding 451 Catholic clerics and religious brothers who the report says abused at least 1,997 children across the state’s dioceses. And, in the words of Attorney General Kwame Raoul, it charges that “decades of Catholic leadership decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight.”
So many abusers are listed in the report that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the shameful history revealed. Unspeakable pain was caused to survivors who, the report also notes, are more likely to struggle with their mental and physical health, more at risk of falling into alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse and who may find it harder to pursue their chosen professional lives.
But one stunning case is illustrative.
On page 64, the report discusses Father Daniel McCormack, whom it deems “one of the most notorious child sex abusers in the history of Illinois.” McCormack, the report alleges, was a known sexual abuser during his seminary days in the 1980s but that did not stop the church from appointing him as a diocesan priest, giving him yet more access to victims.
In 1999, a boy reported McCormack to a nun but she was told by a superior, “if the parents aren’t pushing it, let it go.” McCormack continued his evil trajectory, but the Archdiocese of Chicago ignored another complaint by a boy’s grandmother.
In 2005, he was even arrested on charges of abuse but, incredibly, still left in the ministry, albeit with monitoring that proved ineffectual. And that was some three years after the Boston Globe published its famous investigative series on abuses within the Catholic Church in that city.
In Illinois, it appears, no one was reading the news.
The McCormack saga did not end there. He was arrested in 2006 on five charges of abusing boys between 8 and 12 years old and finally was sent to prison. The report notes that the archdiocese received 104 claims of McCormack sexually abusing children after the archdiocese first received (and basically ignored) that 1999 notice of what the priest was doing.
That case, of course, dates back many years. It happened on the watch of the late Cardinal Francis George, not the current archdiocese leadership. It raises the question as to the purpose of a new report dealing with matters that mostly took place so long ago.
Raoul and his staff clearly anticipated that argument. The purpose of the report, he writes, was “to obtain a full accounting of substantiated child sex abuse committed by Catholic clergy in Illinois and provide a complete public report of substantiated abusers; and second, to give voice to survivors in an attempt to contribute to their healing journey.”
Raoul also pointed out that given the statute of limitations, many of the survivors will never get their day in court. This report, this holding to account, is for some, the only justice they are likely to see.
We’ve heard from many involved in this terrible business. Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, came in to talk to us, as did Mayra Flores, from the archdiocese’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, and attorney John O’Malley, longtime head of the archdiocese’s legal department and, in retirement, a special counsel on abuse-related matters. We also heard from survivors and those affiliated with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Cupich and O’Malley both argued that all credible cases of abuse allegations have been reported to civil authorities since 2002, and that the Chicago diocese has been both a leader and a national model when it comes to taking these cases seriously. “Our house is in order,” Cupich told us.
Indeed, following the release of the report Tuesday, Cupich contested its central claim that at least 149 names of abusers needed to be added to the list acknowledged by the archdiocese either before or (in many cases) during the attorney general’s investigation.
Cupich argued that the report’s use of data lumped together priests already listed on the archdiocese website with “extern priests” (ordained for other dioceses) and religious order priests — or “religious brothers” — whom the church defines as laymen and does not include on its lists of ordained clergy with allegations against them. Therefore, he said, it was not fair to say that these cases were “not disclosed,” or “hiding in plain sight.”
How you feel about that statement probably depends on how you feel about the church in general or about its insistence that it now has figured out how to police itself. Cupich and O’Malley see their role as both doing all they can to acknowledge the past and help survivors, while also protecting and reforming the institution they see as essential to the spiritual life of its Illinois parishioners. Cupich clearly sees elements of the Raoul report as unfair, and thus frustrating, especially given the church’s new efforts toward transparency.
Some survivors, though, will surely view contesting whether or not a religious brother can be said to be rightly counted as an abusive priest to be semantic in nature, and little more than an institutional circling of the wagons, designed to protect not survivors but a complicit hierarchy. We understand that view, too, given the scale of this horrific scandal.
The report, which was begun by former Attorney General Lisa Madigan, concludes that “meaningful, substantial, and institution altering improvements” have been instituted by the church in general and by the Illinois dioceses in particular.
Nevertheless, we are profoundly sad about what happened to these children, and deeply frustrated with the church’s cowardice and its systemic failure to offer victims the protection they deserved. The report is an impressively detailed accounting and an important historical document. It is the very least Illinois can do for those survivors.
“I do meet with victims on a regular basis,” Cupich said to us when we met.
We respectfully suggest he now schedules more of those meetings.
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