Nearly 2,000 children were sexually abused in the Illinois Catholic Church

Vox [Washington, DC]

May 24, 2023

By Nicole Narea

A new report identifies nearly 500 clergy members in Illinois who sexually abused children.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced Tuesday that the state has corroborated more than 1,900 victims’ child sex abuse claims against Catholic clergy in Illinois. The cases go back to 1950 and feature hundreds of abusers who were not previously reported.

The church has been embroiled in child sex abuse scandals for more than two decades that encompass hundreds of thousands of victims around the globe, from Australia to Chile.

The Illinois findings are the latest from several major US investigations in recent years showing that such abuse and church officials’ cover-ups were widespread, making the case that the clergy is incapable of bringing perpetrators among their own ranks to account. Though much of this abuse was initially dismissed by church leaders, mounting evidence — that now includes the Illinois investigation — has made victims impossible to ignore.

696-page report from the state attorney general’s office found a total of 494 abusers across Illinois’s six Catholic dioceses, many of whom were knowingly and routinely transferred between parishes while church officials remained silent. The report says that the investigation prompted the dioceses to publicly list 231 substantiated child sex abusers in addition to those it had already disclosed and that state officials uncovered another 149 who were never identified by the dioceses.

The report relies on interviews, hotline messages, emails, and letters from more than 600 confidential sources, many of whom described experiencing long-term consequences resulting from the abuse, including mental health issues, addiction, and suicidal ideation.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, said in a video statement, “On behalf of the archdiocese, I apologize to all who have been harmed by the failure to prevent and properly respond to child sexual abuse by clerics. Survivors will forever be in our prayers, and we have devoted ourselves to rooting out this problem and providing healing to victims.”

David Clohessy, former national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the report was an important step forward that made dozens of recommendations to bishops on commonsense measures they can take to prevent further abuse, but argued there is “little if any sign that they care enough to make those improvements.”

Those recommendations include ensuring investigators have no role in providing survivor support, that the dioceses provide guides on how to report and make it easy to do so anonymously, and that all forms of retaliation, intimidation, coercion, or adverse action be explicitly prohibited.

Clohessy noted that the report made no announcement of criminal charges against any Catholic officials who covered up child sex abuse or recommendations for additional legislative remedies, which could include strengthening RICO statutes — criminal laws aimed at combating organized crime — under which they could be held accountable.

“That is where we believe real change happens,” Clohessy said. “There have been precious few charges against anybody who ignored or concealed. It’s very frustrating to see law enforcement officials say there were thousands of crimes, hundreds of predators, hundreds of enablers — but no one gets charged.”

Under current Illinois law, clergy and other church staff, including voluntary child care workers, are already required to report suspected child abuse as “mandatory reporters.” The state also removed the statute of limitations for prosecuting child sexual abuse in 2017. But there are other states where clergy are not mandatory reporters and that impose a statute of limitations on such claims.

The broader reckoning in the Catholic Church on sex abuse

The Boston Globe’s seminal 2002 investigation of five local priests who were later convicted and sentenced to prison for sexually abusing children sparked an international reckoning on the church’s history of protecting predators in the clergy. In the decades since, there have been further investigations into the national scope of the abuse, but they often seem to only scratch the surface.

In 2018, then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan wrote a report finding the Catholic Church in Illinois had withheld the names of at least 500 priests accused of sexually abusing children. The church had only reported cases to law enforcement that it believed to be credible, but Madigan contended that it should have come forth with every accusation.

That year, a Pennsylvania grand jury also named 300 priests who had sexually abused more than 1,000 children over 70 years. Their report indicated that there were likely thousands more victims whose records had been lost over the years or who feared coming forward.

More than a dozen other states have since opened broad investigations of clergy accused of sexual abuse. That includes an ongoing investigation in Maryland, which has already alleged that clergy sexually abused more than 600 children between the 1940s and 2002.

In one of the most high-profile such scandals of recent years, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was defrocked after being accused of sexually abusing children as well as young priests and seminarians. He is one of the highest-ranking Catholic Church officials to date to resign over sex abuse allegations.

The Illinois investigation comes on the heels of a decision by Pope Francis in March to update and expand a 2019 church law that lays out procedures to investigate senior religious leaders. He confirmed that adults can also be victims of abuse and that lay church leaders, not just those who are ordained, can also be investigated under the church law.

But given that Francis has admitted that he is “part of the problem” because he initially dismissed a particularly shocking sex abuse scandal in Chile that eventually prompted every bishop in the country to resign, it’s hard to see how the church can effectively self-police. And that has led to continuing efforts by law enforcement in places like Illinois to uncover the extent of the church’s abuse.

Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.