False sex abuse claims against priests — while rare — can hurt real victims and innocent clergy, experts say

Chicago Tribune

April 26, 2023

By Angie Leventis Lourgos

The sexual abuse supposedly occurred in 2003 at St. Agatha Catholic Church on the city’s West Side.

Accuser “John Doe” claimed in court documents that as a young boy he had been sexually assaulted multiple times during the after-school SAFE program by Daniel McCormack, a defrocked Chicago priest who pleaded guilty in 2007 to sexually abusing five children while serving at St. Agatha’s parish.

Memories of the abuse were repressed until 2020, according to court documents, when Doe filed a lawsuit against the former priest and the Chicago Archdiocese, seeking monetary damages.

Except the entire story was later proven in court to be a fabrication, seemingly in an attempt to get a settlement.

As the Catholic Church continues to grapple with a global decadeslong clerical sex abuse scandal, one ramification that’s emerged is fraudulent claims against priests and other members of the clergy.

While data seem to indicate these kinds of false allegations are uncommon, they do occur — and experts say the fallout can hurt real sex abuse victims as well as innocent clergy members, who often live in fear of one day standing falsely accused.

Larry Antonsen, a Chicago leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, worries that fraudulent claims can have a chilling effect on real survivors of sexual abuse who might refrain from coming forward for fear they won’t be believed — an added burden on those who have been harmed by the church and its clergy.

“They are really making it harder for victims to even come out and talk, because it’s a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “And I’m sure there are people … a very small number of people, who go after money. So when people come out and make false accusations, it scares people who might be thinking about telling their story to somebody.”

In this particular fraudulent case, the accuser was incarcerated at Pickneyville Correctional Center in southern Illinois from 2018 to 2022.

During that time, recorded phone calls using an identification number unique to the inmate captured him describing to family members the plans for his hoax, which he often referred to as “a lick.” Doe would talk on the phone about plaintiffs who received settlements based on allegations of sexual abuse by a priest; he expressed frustration that those people wouldn’t “put (him) on the lick” and “tell (him) what to do” to pursue his own claim.

On the calls, the accuser bragged about being able to make himself cry and admitted he never attended the SAFE program at St. Agatha, according to court documents.

“Referring to the claim that he would later assert in his lawsuit, the plaintiff told his sister that he was ‘tryin’ to get some money from … that SAFE (expletive) over there. You know that church, right,’” court documents stated.

A Cook County judge in January found Doe’s lawsuit “was not well-grounded in fact.” In March, the false accuser was ordered to pay the archdiocese just over $113,000 in fees and costs incurred defending the lawsuit.

While it’s impossible to say how many claims of this kind are fake, statistics show that substantiated accusations against priests and other members of the clergy greatly overwhelm those that are deemed false.

2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice report examined allegations of abuse by Catholic priests or deacons from 1950 to 2002. Of those claims, “a definitive result of the investigation” was found in just over 5,600 cases. By far, most of the allegations — 80% — were substantiated, and 18% were unsubstantiated, with only 83 of the accusations, or 1.5%, determined to be false, according to the report.

Another 298 priests or deacons who were considered by church leaders to be exonerated when the dioceses submitted information to researchers were not included in these statistics, as well as some claims that had already been withdrawn, the report said.

Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Blase Cupich, said the archdiocese strives to balance prioritizing victims during an investigation while at the same time “preserving the rights of a person who’s been accused.”

He added that these church investigations are conducted by an independent review board, in addition to any law enforcement or other secular authorities who might also be investigating allegations.

“It’s true there are people who come forward and their facts just don’t match up, either time, place or person specific, and the investigators have to tell us, have to validate that one way or another,” he said. “The difficulty is, we always struggle with reinstating a person not only in their position but also with their reputation. Because it’s hard for them.”

Cupich added that this is part of the “era we live in.”

“But our priests know that if we put victims first, they’re willing to cooperate with a system and (they) realize that it’s just part of something we have to do if we’re serious about keeping our attention on people who have been hurt by the church,” he said.

Yet the threat of false claims can weigh heavily on the minds of priests and other members of the clergy.

study from the Catholic University of America released in October found that 82% of priests “regularly fear being falsely accused of sexual abuse.”

Researchers acknowledged that “the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church has significantly eroded the trust between laity and clergy,” according to a report. The study, which received about 3,500 responses from 10,000 surveyed Catholic priests, examined how the abuse scandal and the church’s responses to it have impacted the priesthood.

“Nevertheless, many priests fear that in the present climate, it has become all too easy for someone to falsely accuse priests of abuse,” the report said. “A single allegation, even if proven false, can destroy a priest’s reputation permanently.”

As for the recent “John Doe” case in Chicago, it in many ways mirrored a similar fraudulent sex abuse lawsuit against the archdiocese a few years ago, where another accuser’s recorded phone calls from prison and jail “revealed his claim … was not well-grounded in law or in fact, was, in fact false,” according to 2018 court documents.

That fake claim was also made against McCormack, who was released from an Illinois prison in 2021 and then registered as a sex offender.

Adam Rick, an attorney representing the archdiocese, said he’s aware of other abuse claims made against McCormack that he believes to be false based on similar jail or prison phone recordings, as well as witnesses who have come forward alleging that an accuser tried to bribe them for testimony.

“It seems to be a recurring pattern where there’s an understanding that the archdiocese makes every effort to resolve claims with legitimate victims of sexual abuse,” said Rick, of the firm Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella. “So I think certain people have tried to take advantage of the archdiocese’s compassionate response to real victims by trying to profit from false claims, especially those relating to McCormack.”

‘Asterisk next to your name’

In November 2008, one phone call derailed the life of a priest at Our Lady of Tepeyac Parish in the Little Village neighborhood.

“It was just a normal day,” recalled Bishop Robert Casey, who is now vicar general of the archdiocese. “That afternoon, I got a call from our vicar for priests office saying that (the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services) notified them of an allegation made against me. And I would immediately need to leave the rectory and the property.”

Casey said he then packed a bag and left the rectory, his home. His sister took him in for roughly four weeks, while he was under investigation by the state for alleged sexual misconduct with a child.

“What does this do to my life?” he recalled thinking at the time. “You have given your life over to the church and to service in the church as a priest. And all of a sudden, that is in jeopardy.”

State investigators determined the claim was “unfounded,” according to the archdiocese. Then, after church officials completed a separate investigation, Casey was reinstated in his parish, he recalled.

But returning to ministry was difficult, he said.

“The challenge is not just in the accusation and removal,” he said. “The challenge also comes in then, after going through a false accusation, coming back into life and reengaging in ministry. Because you live with that understanding that you will always have that asterisk next to your name.”

Yet he has come to see that painful time in his life as a spiritual gift that he has brought into his service as bishop, allowing him to better understand what priests and clergy might face during their ministries.

“It’s living in that tension between knowing that we have to have a voice for victims of abuse and we have to strive for best practices for safeguarding, for healing, for justice,” he said. “But we also have to have a care for our priests and knowing that they choose to walk a path that makes them vulnerable. And that comes with their job.”

Casey also worries that false allegations can harm real survivors of abuse.

“What’s upsetting is that we have legitimate cases of abuse that need to be addressed in our society,” he said. “And so false accusations do not help. Because that just makes an accuser feel like they have no voice.”

In another more recent case, the Rev. Michael Pfleger — well known for his anti-violence activism — was reinstated in December at the Faith Community of St. Sabina following sexual abuse allegations in mid-October.

This was the second time in about two years abuse claims temporarily removed the priest from his parish, where he has been widely supported. In 2021, two adult brothers in Texas claimed Pfleger sexually abused them in the 1970s, but an archdiocese panel found “insufficient reason to suspect” he was guilty.

“This has been the most difficult and challenging time in my entire life,” Pfleger had said at the time.

After the more recent allegations, Cupich wrote in a letter to the St. Sabina community that “the Review Board has concluded that there is no reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations, which I fully accept.”

“I want to recognize that these months have taken a great toll on (Father) Mike and all of you, and I am committed to do everything possible to see that his good name be restored,” the letter said. “As I assure you of my prayers, I ask that you do all you can to welcome back Father Pfleger so that he can once again take up the ministry that has distinguished St. Sabina in the archdiocese and beyond.”

Accusation, apology, reconciliation

In 2018, then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan released a blistering preliminary report alleging that hundreds more priests had been accused of sexual abuse against children than Catholic officials had publicly identified.

The report — which was spurred by a grand jury investigation of the extensive sexual abuse of children and systematic cover-ups by Catholic officials in Pennsylvania — added that Illinois dioceses “have lost sight of both a key tenet” of policies laid out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as “the most obvious human need as a result of these abhorrent acts of abuse: the healing and reconciliation of survivors.”

“I want to express again the profound regret of the whole church for our failures to address the scourge of clerical sexual abuse,” Cupich had said in a statement after the preliminary report came out. “It is the courage of the victim-survivors that has shed purifying light on this dark chapter in church history.”

Cupich had added that the church set up rigorous training and procedures to protect young people from predators, as well as established support services for victims and their families, including the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul had pledged to continue the investigation when he took office, but no final report on the matter has been released yet.

The archdiocese has prioritized addressing sexual abuse since at least 1991, when then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin formed a special commission on clerical sexual misconduct with minors, church leaders said. The spiritual leader of millions of Catholics was widely hailed as a national pioneer in tackling the scourge of sex abuse in the church.

Yet shortly after, Bernardin himself was falsely accused in a high-profile and harrowing case.

In November 1993, a man named Steven Cook alleged in a lawsuit that Bernardin had sexually abused him in the 1970s, when Cook was a teen.

“I can assure you that all my life I have led a chaste, celibate life,” Bernardin said, hours after the allegations emerged.

In March 1994, Cook recanted. He went on to apologize to Bernardin. The two met in person, prayed together and reconciled. Bernardin gave his former accuser a Bible and said Mass for him and a friend, a Chicago priest who accompanied him to the meeting.

“Never in my 43 years as a priest have I witnessed a more profound reconciliation,” Bernardin wrote in an account that was shared publicly, according to the Tribune.

Even before the accusation was withdrawn, many Chicago-area Catholics supported Bernardin. But as one nun commented at the time, the stigma of a sexual abuse allegation can linger even after the accusation is determined to be untrue.

“Once a priest is accused of something like this, he is marked for life,” she told the Tribune in 1993. “It doesn’t matter if he is guilty or innocent.”