On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Chicago released six thousand pages of documents related to the cases of thirty priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. The files, made public as part of a settlement with victims, offer a predictably depressing view of archdiocesan failures over the past several decades. You know the dirge: priests quietly shuttled from parish to parish, civil authorities kept in the dark about some cases (and colluding with church officials to keep others from public scrutiny), laypeople and clergy alike failing to report allegations, bishops refusing to suspend dangerous priests.

For releasing these documents and for making public the names of known abusers, Cardinal Francis George--archbishop of Chicago since 1997--takes some credit. "Publishing for all to read the actual records of these crimes," he wrote in a letter warning Chicagoans about the document dump, "raises transparency to a new level." Perhaps. But he did not volunteer these files. They would not have come out if it hadn't been for victims who pressed for their release as part of a legal settlement. What's more, it's difficult to take seriously Cardinal George's brief for transparency when he seems so intent on obscuring his own role in the scandal.

That letter was repurposed as George's latest column in the Catholic New World. It's titled "Accountability and Transparency"--because, the cardinal says, the archdiocese is "committed" to both. "For more than twenty years," he writes, "the archdiocese has reported all allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities and to DCFS [Department of Child and Family Services]." He makes it sound like every allegation the archdiocese has received has been promptly reported to civil authorities. That's not what happened.

Thanks to a 2006 audit commissioned by Cardinal George himself, we know that archdiocesan employees sat on allegations against Daniel McCormack, who in 2007 pleaded guilty to abusing five children, served half of a five-year sentence, and now resides in a mental institution. (Files related to the McCormack case remain sealed, pending further litigation.) McCormack was arrested in August 2005 on an allegation of abusing a minor, then released, only to be arrested again five months later. But in September 2003, the office of the vicar for priests had received an accusation of misconduct against McCormack--and did not report it to civil authorities. It didn't even initiate an internal investigation because the complainant left a phone number but not a name. "A complainant who leaves a telephone number and requests a return call to be notified of the status of the complaint is not considered an anonymous complaint," according to the audit. The archdiocese didn't act on this accusation until McCormack was arrested the second time--twenty-eight months after it had received that initial complaint.

In October 1999, the principal of Holy Family School was told by a fourth-grader that McCormack had instructed him to take down his pants to be measured. According to the princpal, a nun, the child's mother confronted McCormack, who would only repeat that he had "used poor judgment." Later, the nun said, the mother was seen wearing a new ring and began paying her son's tuition in cash. The nun discussed the accusation with an assistant superintendant at the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools. She also hand-delivered a letter detailing the events to the front desk of the chancery. But, according to the 2006 audit, neither the principal nor archdiocesan officials reported the allegation to DCFS or to local law enforcement, "as required by law."

NPR reported that in 2005 the mother of one of McCormack's accusers contacted Leah McCluskey, who was in charge of diocesan abuse investigations, to say that her son complained that McCormack had fondled him at school on at least two occasions in '03. McCluskey promised to investigate, according to the mother, who also informed the school principal. But it was the mother's call to police--not the archdiocese's--that prompted McCormack's first arrest. He was released for lack of evidence.

Between 1999 and 2005, several allegations against or suspicions about McCormack were brought to the attention of Office of Catholic Schools personnel, the audit found. They "considered these...credible enough for the teachers to conduct their own informal monitoring of their students when Fr. McCormack was present," according to the audit. But nobody reported the allegations to civil authorities. Why? "The primary reason...was that each of the OCS personnel either was unaware of the proper procedures for reporting or that one thought the other had reported" the allegations. Almost none of the OCS staff interviewed for the audit were aware of their reporting responsibilities under state law.

The audit does not mince words about these lapses: "Employees of the Archdiocese of Chicago have violated the Illinois Statute, Abused and Neglected Reporting Act." So why would Cardinal George claim that for over two decades "the archdiocese has reported all allegations of sexual abuse to the civil authorities"?

Another puzzling aspect of George's letter is his rendition of the facts surrounding the McCormack case. "The public story," the cardinal claims, "has been largely fashioned by plaintiffs' lawyers and other activists and deliberately distorts or ignores points that would mitigate the charge of archdiocesan neglect." That isn't quite the same tone George struck in the immediate aftermath of the McCormack scandal. "For the many missteps in responding to the accusations of sexual abuse of minors by Fr. McCormack, I must accept responsibility and do," George said in March 2006. "For the tragedy of allowing children to be in the presence of a priest against whom a current accusation of sexual abuse had been made," he continued, "I am truly sorry."

The cardinal was referring to the fact that even though his own sexual-abuse review board recommended that McCormack be removed from ministry in October 2005, George did not heed their advice. And when board members started reading media accounts that suggested they were the ones who failed to act, they shared their displeasure with the cardinal. As NPR reported, between the fall of 2005 and McCormack's second arrest in January 2006, "four boys say they were molested" by him. "I should have found at least some fashion in the canons to remove provisionally Fr. McCormack," Cardinal George said at a 2007 news conference (in fact canon law gives bishops a great deal of latitude to suspend priests). "I take responsibility for not doing that, and I'm saddened by my own failure."

Is he still? Because his column doesn't mention the fact that he rejected his review board's recommendation to suspend McCormack. He writes that "the first association of his name with the possible sexual abuse of a minor" came after the first arrest. He notes that McCormack was released without charges (but doesn't say that McCormack's brother is a Chicago cop). He points out that McCormack "was put under monitoring and his ministry with children restricted while the archdiocese began to investigate."

But he neglects to cite the criticism of the two audits he commissioned following McCormack's second arrest--both of which found several glaring deficiencies in the monitoring process. For example, McCormack's monitor was never told why he had to keep an eye on the cleric. The principal of the school where McCormack taught was not informed that the archdiocese wanted him to stay away from kids. And McCormack was allowed to take three minors on a shopping excursion to Minnesota while his monitor was out of town for Labor Day. The monitor was away over the Christmas 2005 holiday--during that time McCormack allegedly abused a child.

Cardinal George does find room to complain that civil authorities did not "share with the archdiocese what they came to know in their investigations." In fact DCFS did copy the archdiocese on a December 2005 letter to McCormack informing him that an investigation determined a finding against him indicating sexual molestation. He laments the fact that "various [diocesan] offices involved did not consistently share what they knew with each other or with me." That's true. There was a tragic breakdown in communication at nearly every stage of the McCormack case. But that doesn't explain why George refused his review board's advice to suspend the cleric. 

"From the time he was arrested and released," George writes, "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." Even if that's true, it's irrelevant. A review board's job is not to discover once and for all whether an accused priest is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Rather, its job is to determine whether allegations are credible and to advise the bishop whether an accused priest should be suspended pending further investigation.

At various points over the years, the archdiocese has tried to downplay the review board's advice about McCormack, calling it "informal" or "interim"--even after McCormack's second arrest. That attitude is consistent with one of the audit's findings about the archdiocese's approach to the case from the start. The archdiocese "as a whole displayed great consternation to the point of becoming mired in semantics as it pertains to the meaning of 'allegation,' attempting to identify if the allegation(s) was 'formal or informal,' 'credible or not credible,' 'substantiated or unsubstantiated,' 'second party or third party,' and what to do with the 'allegation' at the onset of receiving the allegation." The audit concludes that these "concerns and nonaction on the part of archdiocesan personnel created situations whereby children were placed at risk."

Cardinal George cannot actually believe that bishops should leave accused priests in ministry until their review boards can say they are 100-percent sure that the accused are guilty. So why is he pretending that he maintained such a standard in 2005--just three years after he says he pressed the U.S. Catholic bishops to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on abusive priests?

But the McCormack case wasn't the first time George declined to follow his review board's recommendation to suspend an accused priest. In the troubling case of Joseph Bennett, who was accused of molesting several minors (and whose file was included in Tuesday's document dump), the review board's investigation dragged on for years before it finally found "reasonable cause to suspect" that Bennett had abused. On October 15, 2005, it advised Cardinal George of that finding, and "reccommended that Fr. Bennett be immediately withdrawn from ministry." The cardinal accepted that recommendation on October 18. But a few weeks later, he had a change of heart. On November 7, 2005, he informed the review board that "I have since reconsidered this matter and would like to postpone a final decision for the time being."

The Bennett case turned on gruesome details. At one point his canon lawyer showed up at a review-board meeting with a paten--a liturgical instrument designed to hold Communion--in order to demonstrate how difficult it would be to insert its handle into the rectum of a child, as one complainant alleged. At another meeting, the review board ordered Bennett to be examined by a physician to see whether an accuser's recollection of a freckle on his scrotum was accurate. Eventually, the review board came to find that testimony credible, and that's what led them to recommend Bennett's suspension.

But that wasn't enough for George. At a December 3, 2005, meeting, he argued with review-board members about the matter at some length. "Other parts of [the complainant's] allegation seem to be inaccurate," the meeting minutes record the cardinal saying--"except for the presence of freckles on Fr. Bennett's scrotum." He repeatedly mentioned his concern that canonical procedure be followed scrupulously, insisting that Bennett be given another opportunity to address the review board about these allegations (the minutes clarify that Bennett did address the board at their previous meeting). He expressed his concern that the Vatican would bounce the case back to Chicago if they didn't "abide by procedure and 'the code.'" He asked why Bennett didn't have canonical counsel sooner, apprently not realizing that the priest took nearly a year to respond to the review board's initial invitation to meet with them.

One could be forgiven for seeing such delays as strategic. For a while, they worked. Then McCormack was arrested a second time. Days later, George informed Bennett that he was suspended indefinitely.

The McCormack and Bennett cases are different in many respects, but in at least one they are the same: the archbishop did not follow his review board's advice to suspend an accused priest. And in that way they are emblematic of the scandal as a whole. The church has learned a lot since the 2002 wave of scandals broke. Its laypeople and clergy are better educated about sexual abuse. They're taught what to look out for. Children and adults are encouraged not to keep misconduct to themselves. But no set of sexual-abuse policies is perfect. And in Catholic dioceses, they remain subject to the whims of bishops. Who knows what led George to reject his review board's recommendations? But we do know what happened when he failed to follow them.

"Telling the truth does not create an excuse for failure," Cardinal George writes in his column. "But it makes a difference, as we go forward, to know in what the failure consists, to know that the truth has been told and that the church is committed to accountability and transparency." Two years ago, Cardinal George sent his resignation letter to Rome after turning seventy-five, as required by canon law. Sooner or later Pope Francis will accept it, and appoint a new archbishop for the nation's third largest diocese. Chicago Catholics are weary of the sexual-abuse crisis. They're tired of reading about abusive priests and the bishops who enabled them. And they deserve an archbishop who's willing to be honest with them about the worst scandal they've ever known.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.