Archdiocese of Chicago sat on or lost child sexual abuse accusation, didn’t question priest about allegation specifics, accused priest says

Noir News [Chicago IL]

March 19, 2024

By Iain Carlos

Fr. Daniel McCarthy said he was never directly questioned about the details of child sexual abuse allegations leveled against him, and one of the allegations wasn’t investigated for about a year.

By the accused priest’s telling, an Archdiocese of Chicago investigation of child sexual abuse had big problems.

Fr. Daniel McCarthy said that during an Archdiocese investigation of child sexual abuse allegations leveled against him, he was never directly questioned about the specifics of the accusations. And despite its child safety policy to remove a priest from his parish until it completes an investigation, the Archdiocese knew about an abuse accusation against McCarthy for around a year before it removed him from Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity Parish or told the public about the allegations.

Noir could not obtain a document verifying McCarthy’s claims, but sources familiar with the Archdiocese’s investigative process confirmed parts of his recollection. The Archdiocese did not respond to Noir’s multiple outreach attempts to get comment on McCarthy’s claims.

Asked about the Archdiocese’s unwillingness to comment on the situation, David Clohessy, former president of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said: “This sounds like an absolute textbook case of how to act if you want to ignore abuse reports and discourage other abuse reports. It’s just unconscionable that they would do so little, so slowly, and so secretively.”

This article does not attempt to uncover McCarthy’s guilt or innocence — rather it spotlights the potential failures of the Archdiocese’s investigation.

The public first became aware of an allegation against McCarthy when Cardinal Blase Cupich, head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, wrote an open letter on Oct. 17, 2020 to Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity Parish explaining that McCarthy would step away from ministry. The Archdiocese received an allegation that McCarthy committed sexual abuse against a minor “approximately 50 years ago while he was assigned to Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago,” Cupich wrote.

The Archdiocese pulled McCarthy from his parish pending an investigation in October 2020. Leah McCluskey, then director of the Office of Child Abuse Investigations and Review at the Archdiocese, contacted McCarthy to tell him about the child sexual abuse investigation process, McCarthy said.

There’s an outline of its investigative process on its website, but the Archdiocese declined to further detail the process, and it’s unclear whether the outlined policies are always followed in practice. Through interviews with sources familiar with the Archdiocese’s investigative process, and a review of documents the Archdiocese released on decades-old abuse investigations, Noir has come up with an outline of how things tend to work.

When a priest gets accused of child sexual abuse, the Archdiocese usually removes the priest from their parish pending an investigation, for the safety of children at the parish in case the priest is guilty. Then its Director of the Office of Child Abuse Investigations and Review contacts the priest to tell him about the accusation and how the investigation will proceed. 

Critically, at some point during their correspondence, the Director of the Office interviews the priest regarding specific details of the allegations, after doing the same for the alleged victim. Using the interviews of the accused priest and the alleged victims, as well as any other information the Director of the Office turns up, the Director compiles a dossier on the investigation and provides it to a group called the Independent Review Board.

The Independent Review Board is a group of mostly lay Catholics (some members have to be clergy) who vote on whether there’s sufficient evidence to suspect a priest’s guilt. The Independent Review Board makes determinations via simple majority, with a tie going against the priest.

Alarmingly, sources familiar with the Archdiocese’s investigative process had different things to say about the Review Board’s role in investigations. Some sources said the Review Board essentially looks at the Director of the Office’s dossier and takes a vote. But former Review Board member Mary Mulhern said the group is deeply involved in the investigative process.

“And that’s why it can sometimes take weeks or months, you know, to dig up all this historical information,” Mulhern said. “So that we are satisfied, we’ve looked at everything possible before we decide whether or not we think it occurred.”

Regardless of how involved the Independent Review Board is in the investigation, the sources were under the impression that the Director of the Office, or at least somebody, always questions the accused priest about the allegation.

But that’s the thing. McCarthy told Noir he never faced direct, specific questioning from anybody, aside from broad questions unrelated to allegation specifics he fielded from the Independent Review Board shortly before they took their vote. The only communication he had with the Archdiocese regarding the specifics of the allegations were written statements he crafted with his lawyer.

McCluskey departed her role a couple of months into McCarthy’s investigation having never questioned the priest, he said. Her temporary replacement, Moira Reilly, also never questioned McCarthy, hardly kept in contact with him and came across as generally disorganized and incompetent, the priest added. A source familiar with the Independent Review Board process also described Reilly’s tenure as marked by disorganization and incompetence.

“She wasn’t, clearly, wasn’t qualified for a position like that,” McCarthy said. “So things got very stalled for quite some time. I went for a number of months without hearing anything from anybody.”

A source familiar with the Archdiocese investigative process told Noir that they thought they recalled Reilly questioning McCarthy with the priest’s Canon lawyer present, but they weren’t sure. The source had difficulty recalling specifics about the McCarthy investigation.

McCarthy told Noir again that no such call occurred when Noir asked him about this possibility.

The months of silence were anxiety-inducing and bewildering, McCarthy said.

“I mean after all this ended, I forget who made the suggestion, somebody suggested I should see a counselor,” McCarthy said. “So I did. And I’ve seen a psychologist ever since. And at one point, he just said, you know this is PTSD. And I could understand that now — I’m healed now — I’m recovered. But you know, there was adjustment time coming back to ministry.”

A source familiar with the Archdiocese’s investigative process said that a lack of contact with an accused priest for this duration of time is not unusual, as the first months of an investigation are typically reserved for investigating the details of the allegation and the accused priest is questioned toward the end.

After the Director of the Office questions the priest, the Director compiles a dossier on the investigation, including the priest’s defense, and provides it to the Independent Review Board, a source familiar with the Archdiocese’s investigative process said. If the Independent Review Board feels the evidence is sturdy enough to make a decision, the Director’s investigative work concludes. If the Independent Review Board feels it needs more information, the Director will continue their investigation.

Regardless of these details, there may have been issues with how the Archdiocese conducted the McCarthy investigation during the months of radio silence with McCarthy. A source familiar with the Archdiocese’s investigative process said that people present at the orphanage at the same time as McCarthy were questioned by the Archdiocese about their impressions of the priest and their experiences with him. But they weren’t questioned about whether specific details regarding the investigation could have been true given the operation of the orphanage.

After months of not hearing from anyone, McCarthy’s lawyer “ranted and raved and yelled and screamed,” to the Archdiocese, which seemed to quicken the process, McCarthy said.

Shortly after McCarthy’s lawyer re-established contact with the Archdiocese, staffers informed him of something alarming, the priest said. There had been a prior accusation of child sexual abuse made against him around a year before Cardinal Cupich wrote the aforementioned open letter. The abuse allegedly took place at the same orphanage described in the letter.

“They never told me, they never told the lawyer, they never told anybody. And you know, the left hand and the right hand were blaming each other. ‘Oh yeah, we sent a message, and he should have called you.’ ‘Well he didn’t.’ ‘Well, okay.’ And then he would say, ‘I never got the message, she never sent it,’” McCarthy said.

“Unconscionable, absolutely unconscionable,” David Clohessy, former president of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said about McCarthy’s description of the Archdiocese’s sitting on the first allegation. “And almost certainly self-serving. I’ve been around this for a long long long time, and I cannot imagine any other possible motive.”

A source familiar with the Archdiocese investigative process confirmed McCarthy’s recollection of the described fiasco.

Setting aside McCarthy’s guilt or innocence, if the priest’s recollection is accurate, this means that the Archdiocese was aware of an allegation of child sexual abuse against him for about a year but left him in his post, contradicting their policy to protect children in case of a priest’s guilt. Moreover, it’s unclear whether this allegation received a thorough investigation, as the Archdiocese itself seems to have lost track of it — and the Independent Review Board issued a ruling on both allegations shortly after it told McCarthy about the prior one.

McCarthy said he is under the impression that both allegations were investigated. A source familiar with the Archdiocese’s investigative process said they could not recall whether one or multiple accusations were investigated.

If McCarthy’s telling is accurate, the Archdiocese never told the public that it made this mistake, and never clearly articulated the situation surrounding allegations against McCarthy. 

The Archdiocese then provided McCarthy with redacted written statements outlining the allegations of his accusers. McCarthy responded to the accusations in writing with help from his lawyer and canon lawyer, explaining where details of the accusations didn’t add up, he said.

Shortly after the Archdiocese seemingly recalled that there had been a prior allegation, the Archdiocese determined it had garnered sufficient evidence around the McCarthy case and decided to bring him to speak before the Independent Review Board before it would take a final vote, the priest said.

“My lawyer had prepped me for all kinds of things, you know, if they ask this, if they say that, you know, all that,” McCarthy said.

But his lawyer hadn’t needed to.

“I’m a big baseball nut, and so I described the meeting with the Board as a belt-high fastball. They were lobbing easy questions at me. So it sounded to me like they weren’t really taking — that they had already figured out that this was silliness.”

McCarthy doesn’t remember precisely what questions he was asked, “but I know that they were really simple. It wasn’t about like details of the accusation or anything like that,” he said.

Per McCarthy, the meeting was likely “a belt-high fastball” because the details of the accusations and the lack of witnesses meant the accusations seemed implausible.

The Archdiocese did not provide more details on the investigation. As the alleged victims of McCarthy have not gone public, Noir has not attempted to discern their identities to get comment. 

But even if all of the details of the allegations don’t line up, it’s difficult to discern why the Archdiocese wouldn’t have taken its opportunities to ask McCarthy specific questions about them.

Asked for his thoughts on McCarthy saying he didn’t face any specific questions from the Board or Archdiocese personnel, Clohessy, the former SNAP president, said: “I’m speechless. It frankly just confirms my absolute worst fears about these bodies being, maybe well intentioned, but completely amateurish, especially because these are crimes that involve shrewdness and savvy and cleverness. Again, I can’t imagine why a Board wouldn’t ask about the specifics. I have no law enforcement background and I’m not a psychologist. But common sense would suggest you would want to ask about some of the particulars just to see the body language.”

Cardinal Cupich wrote a second open letter to Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity Parish explaining that the Independent Review Board had found “insufficient reason to suspect Father McCarthy is guilty of these allegations,” on June 14, 2021. In the letter, Cupich writes that “late last year the Archdiocese received allegations of child sexual abuse against Father McCarthy,” omitting the fact, if the priest’s recollection is correct, that the Archdiocese sat on — or lost — the first McCarthy allegation for a year.

Lack of transparency

The alleged failures around the McCarthy investigation call into question the Archdiocese’s lack of transparency regarding their investigative policies and practices.

The Archdiocese will not provide a fleshed out evidentiary standard, investigative or deliberative process, publicly accessible investigative documents (save a tranche related to old cases that was released in 2014), or described reasonings for decisions. This means that assessing the soundness of Review Board investigations remains difficult for the public.

Child sexual abuse investigation experts told Noir these kinds of investigations benefit from transparency regarding policies and procedures, so long as victim confidentiality is preserved.

“There can’t be trust without transparency,” said Robert Peters, a Senior Attorney at the Zero Abuse Project and specialist prosecutor of sexual abuse and child exploitation criminal offenses. “It’s very difficult to heal as a community without a level of transparency.”

When asked why the Archdiocese hasn’t adopted more transparency around its investigations, former Independent Review Board member Mary Mulhern said: “I don’t know — I mean lawyers are obviously the worst case scenario predictors, and their job is to protect their client, the Archdiocese, and that’s not necessarily the same thing as doing the right thing.” 

“Because the lawyer’s job is to make sure that the Archdiocese doesn’t go bankrupt — I mean that’s not its only job, but you have to make sure that your client isn’t unnecessarily hurt financially,” Mulhern said. “And so there are so many factors to take into consideration as to whether or not we as an institution, the Church, publish all of our procedures.”

Sam Carlen contributed to the editorial process for this article.