Accused Priest Was Rising Star
His Riveting Style of Preaching Earned Him Respect, until Allegations of Abuse Caught up with Him
By Margaret Ramirez firstname.lastname@example.org and Russell Working email@example.com
April 2, 2006
Called to the priesthood as an Irish-Catholic boy, Rev. Daniel McCormack followed a path that led him into the heart of the African-American community. He learned to preach as few Roman Catholic priests could, firing up the faithful in the rolling cadences of a black Baptist clergyman.
He called on his flock to love God as passionately as a South Sider loves the White Sox. But away from the pulpit, he was an introvert, often perceived as painfully shy, even uncomfortable, in conversation.
To many, he was a devoted white priest who ministered to suffering neighborhoods and was moved by the passion of African-American culture. As pastor of St. Agatha in Chicago for six years, he was forceful in his denunciations of violence and prayerful in his late-night visits to the emergency room to comfort victims of gunfire.
Yet he now stands accused of betraying the trust he had earned, by sexually abusing three boys at his parish.
Since his fall from grace, other allegations have surfaced suggesting that throughout McCormack's priestly journey--even as far back as his years in seminary--there was a disturbing side to the promising young preacher.
McCormack has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His large family, including his parents and eight siblings, declined to speak to the Tribune, and his attorney, Patrick Reardon, did not return repeated phone calls.
But through interviews with former classmates, co-workers and parishioners, as well as archdiocese reports and the words of McCormack himself in a 2002 interview, a portrait emerges of the priest standing at the center of a tragic scandal.
McCormack's charisma was obvious even in his first parish assignment: St. Ailbe, in the Calumet Heights neighborhood. There, they still remember the masses he would celebrate each Thursday for schoolchildren.
"He was marvelous," said Sister Kathryn Hartnett, the parish's director of development. "It was absolutely incredible to watch. He knew how to get their attention, and he could really speak to them."
Hartnett remembers one Halloween sermon during which McCormack spoke while carving a pumpkin at the altar.
"All the time he was giving his sermon, he was carving into it, and the kids just couldn't believe it," she said. "His message was that we have to give something of ourselves, in order for the light of God to shine through to others."
McCormack finished by holding up the carved pumpkin so the children could see the light beaming through.
Like others close to McCormack, Hartnett said she finds the sexual abuse allegations difficult to believe.
"This just doesn't seem like his nature," she said. "There's a saying by Maya Angelou that says, `People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.'
"Well, I always think of that when I think of Father Dan. Because, the people--they just loved him."
A childhood built on faith
McCormack was born Oct. 28, 1968, the fifth of Hugh and Marie McCormack's nine children. He was raised in the West Lawn neighborhood southeast of Midway Airport; it was a thriving community of brick bungalows housing Irish and Polish immigrants.
The family worshiped at St. Mary Star of the Sea and sent their children to the parish school, which had nearly 1,200 pupils.
Hartnett was then principal of that school. Although the nun says she does not remember McCormack from his childhood, she would cross paths with him again in the 1990s while ministering at St. Ailbe.
Members of McCormack's childhood parish were fairly conservative and dedicated to their church, she said.
"People really loved St. Mary's," Hartnett said. "It was their church, and they did everything for her. The school was bursting. Every time we had a fire drill, it was like a Notre Dame football game."
It was in childhood, McCormack later said, that he heard the calling to become a priest.
"Priesthood, or for that matter any vocation, is not a decision but an answer," he said in the 2002 interview, posted on the Black Catholic Chicago Web site. "It takes years of prayer, development, and formation to learn what our Creator God calls us to in life. Therefore, I believe I was called at the earliest of ages and then I struggled with how to answer."
After graduating from St. Mary in 1982, McCormack attended Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary South and then majored in American and African-American history at Niles College. McCormack was athletic and had a passion for sports, especially the White Sox and the Notre Dame teams, said fellow student Rothwell Floyd.
Like McCormack, Floyd graduated from Quigley in the class of 1986. The two were not close in high school, but at Niles--where they were in a class of about 35--they lived a few doors apart in the dorm and tended to hang out together. In Floyd's eyes, McCormack seemed destined for the priesthood.
"He was never involved in the wild reckless stuff," said Floyd, 37, who lives in Evergreen Park. "He studied. He was one of the people you could just sit down and talk to."
McCormack was at ease hanging out with African-American students, including Floyd. During college, the classmates would celebrate both St. Patrick's Day and Black History Month.
"I don't think he saw color," Floyd said. "With all of us, we didn't see color. We didn't see boundaries."
After Niles, McCormack enrolled at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, where his interest in African-American liturgy began to shape his style as a preacher.
"Through my many experiences in the seminary I just happened to fall in love with and be nourished by the unique experience of hospitality, music, preaching and the vibrant faith of the black community," McCormack later said.
But even as his devotion to the church deepened, signs of trouble emerged. Last month, an archdiocese audit found Mundelein seminary officials had learned in 1992 of three separate allegations of sexual misconduct by McCormack during his time at Niles College and St. Mary of the Lake.
No records of the allegations were found in his files, but one incident reportedly involved a minor. The others involved adult males. McCormack was also counseled for alcohol abuse at the seminary, officials said.
Two years later, in 1994, McCormack was ordained.
A gifted church leader
As associate pastor at St. Ailbe, McCormack exuded youthful excitement in leading a church and being a priest, said Hartnett.
"We had these walkathons to raise money for the church, and he would be the first one out there, running all through the neighborhood with the kids," she said. "Most of the kids never knew a priest like that."
After three years, McCormack in 1997 was offered a faculty position at St. Joseph College Seminary at Loyola University. The school, formerly Niles College, had moved to a smaller campus and changed names in 1994.
Rev. James Presta, rector of St. Joseph, said McCormack held several jobs there, including history instructor, dean of students and dean of discipline. He devoured books, and the floor of his room--littered with big history tomes and tattered copies of Sports Illustrated--told of his favorite topics.
Presta said McCormack played a crucial role in improving seminary admissions. "He created an admissions process that screened out candidates who weren't serious about faith life or their vocations," he said.
Even as an administrator, Presta said, McCormack's love for African-American liturgy continued to grow.
"He grew up in an all-white parish, but he felt that he prayed better in African-American style," Presta said. "He said he felt more comfortable. He was able to express himself through their music, through the way their liturgy would unfold."
James Long, a former student of McCormack at St. Joseph, admired him for being approachable and unpretentious.
"He was the type of priest that I would always want to be, because of his devotion not only to the priesthood, but his devotion to his people," said Long, who lives in Louisville. "There's not a whole lot of people busting down the doors to minister to the African-American community. He embraced it."
During this same time, McCormack was sacramental minister at Holy Family, on the Near West Side.
There, in October 1999, a 4th grader who was interested in being an altar boy reported to the school principal that McCormack had asked him to pull down his pants so he could be measured.
When the principal confronted McCormack about the incident, he told her he had "used poor judgement," she said. The boy's mother ultimately asked that the matter not be pursued.
'I was proud of him'
By the time Father Dan got to St. Agatha in 2000, he had perfected his preaching skills.
Julia Bledsoe, a member of the parish council, admits she had disagreements with McCormack and became one of his harshest critics after the abuse allegations came out. Still, she praised the way he spoke in church.
"He was so enthralling, it was just magical," Bledsoe said. "Ooo, I was proud of him. There are not many pastors in this town who can outpreach McCormack."
Despite his commanding presence at the pulpit, members of the Lawndale parish agreed that McCormack was often uncomfortable one-on-one.
"He wasn't a people person," said longtime parishioner Loris Bullock. "But if you asked him to do something, he would do it.... He cared for us, and he did it in a way that I respected. He did things but didn't have to tell the world he was doing it."
McCormack also taught algebra and coached basketball at Our Lady of the Westside School.
He enjoyed attending the church's monthly community dinners, where the needy were treated to free meals and warm conversation. After a family experienced a death, he always ensured the church could provide a funeral and proper burial. One church member who works at a nearby hospital said she was unsure if the priest ever slept, because he spent so many nights there comforting people who had been shot.
Joseph Henderson credits McCormack with saving his marriage when he had all but decided to walk out on his wife and eight children.
"He toughened me in the spiritual sense," Henderson said. "He said, `You just got to take your time and pray on it.' The way he did it, I felt the energy. That had never happened to me before."
Yet even as McCormack consoled families in his church, accusations emerged that he had betrayed them.
In August, a mother reported that McCormack had molested her 8-year-old son twice when he was alone with the priest after mass, once on Dec. 1, 2003, and again on that Christmas Eve.
McCormack was arrested and detained on Aug. 30, a day after Cardinal Francis George had approved his promotion to head a West Side deanery, with some leadership responsibilities for 20 parishes. He was not charged with a crime; police said there was not sufficient evidence.
Hearing of the allegation, archdiocese officials told McCormack he was not to be alone with children and designated another priest to monitor him. Days later, when the monitor went out of town on Labor Day weekend, McCormack took three boys to Minnesota on a shopping trip.
When the monitor left again briefly over Christmas, McCormack allegedly abused another boy.
Accusations catch up with him
On his last Sunday in church, McCormack continued to exhort parishioners to remember their spiritual heritage as African-Americans. It was Jan. 15, the day before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
In that Sunday's bulletin, McCormack urged his elders to visit schools with children and reflect on the day's meaning.
"You lived through the time of Dr. King," he wrote. "You heard his words. Many of you took an active role in the Civil Rights Movement. Tell your stories. Share your experiences and your emotions. Allow that time in our history to come alive for our young people."
The next Saturday, Father Dan was arrested and charged. Prosecutors said the priest had abused a boy on the basketball team two or three times a month for nearly three years. He is awaiting trial.
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