CHICAGO — When the movie “Spotlight” hits theaters across the country Friday, the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child sexual abuse will again be in focus, more than a decade after The Boston Globe published a series of stories exposing policies that allowed abusive priests to stay in ministry.
After the Spotlight series, revelations surfaced that many other dioceses in the United States and around the world operated in a similar manner, keeping credible allegations secret from police and parishioners, with policies aimed at protecting priests instead of children.
Just this week, an investigation by the National Catholic Reporter found that the Catholic Church in the United States incurred more than $4 billion in costs related to the sex abuse crisis, which affected more than 95 percent of all US dioceses and saw more than 4,000 priests accused, according to an independent 2004 study commissioned by US bishops.
But in Chicago, archdiocesan authorities have a message: Don’t paint with too broad a brush.
“We were engaged with the authorities from the get-go. We weren’t stand-offish with them,” said John C. O’Malley, an attorney for the archdiocese who, 10 years before the Boston scandal was exposed, had drafted procedures for the Chicago archdiocese that were considered groundbreaking at the time.
“This was not a secret in Chicago. This was an open issue that was being dealt with,” he said.
That’s not to say Chicago lacked its share of predatory priests, or that the archdiocese didn’t reassign them when allegations surfaced, or that accused priests harmed additional children even after the archdiocese received complaints.
All of that happened.
But O’Malley said the archdiocese tackled the issue much earlier than other major Catholic centers in the United States, as far back as 1991 when the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin established a panel to study the sexual abuse of children.
The following year, Bernardin established a lay-controlled board to review all allegations of clergy sex abuse, created an office to reach out to victims, and amped up its reporting to civil authorities. (Previously, the archdiocese complied with a 1975 law that required reporting allegations of ongoing abuse of children, not abuse that had allegedly occurred years earlier to individuals who reported it as adults.)
By the end of 1993, more than 30 priests credibly accused of abuse were no longer in ministry, about half of the total number of priests who would eventually face credible accusations of abuse.
In the time since the 1992 protocols were implemented, only six priests have faced credible accusations. With the exception of one priest — which critics say is a big exception — all were removed from ministry before they could abuse more children.
Terry McKiernan of the watchdog group BishopAccountability.org agreed that Bernardin spearheaded some major changes to protect children, but he said the fact abuse was happening “was not a surprise” to the cardinal.
“He just worked aggressively to get on top of it. His philosophy was to never let a crisis go to waste,” McKiernan said. “He was not your typical bishop.”
However, “it’s a little bit of stretch to describe [the archdiocese] as leaders in the field,” he said. “The whole Church was playing catch-up with this.”
Still, McKiernan acknowledged that the situation in Chicago was far ahead of what was happening in Boston at the time.
Although in Boston Law established a review committee for his archdiocese in 1993, just a year after Chicago’s new policies went into effect, it had a far different purpose.
As a 2003 report from former Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly made clear, the commission in Boston was structured to protect the reputation of accused priests, often at the expense of children.
Like the Archdiocese of Chicago, Boston dedicated staff to deal with allegations of abuse. But unlike in Chicago, Church officials did not share those allegations with civil authorities.
In Chicago, credible accusations were reported to parishes in order to warn parents. In Boston, this was not the case. (Sister Catherine Mulkerrin, who was assigned by Law to provide pastoral care to victims, explicitly urged the archdiocese to do so, but her pleas were rejected.)
And because of the 1992 protocols in Chicago, priests facing credible accusations of abuse there were removed from active ministry. In Boston, however, credibly accused priests would undergo a brief period of therapy and then were often placed in “restrictive ministry.” Some would go on to abuse more children.
O’Malley was quick to point out that he isn’t comparing Chicago to Boston because he isn’t familiar with the details of Law’s leadership. But he says Chicago did the best it could at the time.
“We were not perfect, but this has been a serious effort for a period of time,” he said.
Chicago’s early efforts were eventually replaced by what’s become known as the Dallas Charter, the 2002 protocols adopted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that implements what bishops say is a zero-tolerance approach to handling sexual abuse allegations.
McKiernan said those rules help, calling them “certainly the strongest policy in any Catholic conference in the world,” but said, “it’s not a perfect policy.”
For example, he said, “there is no time limit on when you remove a priest from ministry while you take a look at allegations.”
And, in fact, even with its early movement on the issue, the leadership of a cardinal in adopting zero-tolerance, and the implementation of the norms, the church in Chicago still has faced shortcomings when it comes to protecting kids.
Daniel McCormack, a former priest in the archdiocese, sexually abused several children between 1999 and 2007. But archdiocesan personnel did not report initial allegations to civil authorities.
The late Cardinal Francis George was made aware of allegations against McCormack in 2005, but citing a lack of credible evidence, did not remove the priest from ministry. (Indeed, civil authorities had been investigating allegations against McCormack, but even they did not find enough evidence to bring charges.) Over the course of the next two years after George’s decision not to remove him from ministry, McCormack abused more children. He was eventually locked up in 2007.
George’s decision is, for McKiernan, emblematic of the Church’s shortfalls when it comes to protecting kids.
“I don’t think a lot of bishops and priests are very comfortable with the review board process, with the notion that there needs to be some sort of oversight, that there needs to be some kind of separation of powers,” he said.
But the Archdiocese of Chicago says it continues to invest in resources and personnel to make sure children are safe in the Church. Officials point to the training the archdiocese has provided to more than 190,000 employees and volunteers, and to more than 250,000 children. It has conducted more than 150,000 background checks, and every parish and school is audited regularly to ensure they are in compliance with Church policy.
Protecting children, said Jan Slatery, the director of the archdiocese’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, “is institutionalized. We’re proud of that.”
She went on, “We’re confident that our goal to have children who are free to be children, to grow up in a responsible, creative, safe environment, can happen in our schools and in our parishes.”
Note: Crux is part of the Boston Globe Media Group, which also publishes The Boston Globe.