Church Members Defend Priest Accused of Abuse

By Jim Ritter and Frank Main
Daily Southtown [Chicago IL]
January 23, 2006

Their pastor had just been accused of sexually abusing two boys, but on Sunday, members of St. Agatha Catholic Church still spoke highly of the Rev. Daniel McCormack.

"He's one of the best," said longtime parishioner Phyllis Lee. "I don't believe the allegations."

McCormack, 37, has been pastor since 2000. Parishioners called him an energetic and passionate priest who helped make St. Agatha an anchor of Chicago's Lawndale community.

St. Agatha, 3151 W. Douglas Blvd., runs a food pantry, feeds the homeless, attracts new housing, provides legal assistance and operates tutoring and afterschool programs.

"We can't throw out his good work," parishioner Derrick Strongs said.

Relieved of his duties, McCormack, known to all as Father Dan, also is a terrific speaker who gives homilies without notes, church members said.

"Everyone agrees he could really preach," said parishioner Wynona Redmond. "This is a church where you have to perform. You can't just read the homily."

In a letter to the parish read at Sunday Masses, Auxiliary Bishop John Manz announced that McCormack has been removed from the parish pending further investigation by the archdiocese's Independent Review Board, whose members are appointed by Cardinal Francis George.

McCormack, free on bail, is on administrative leave in a monitored setting with no contact with minors. Manz asked parishioners to pray for McCormack, for the boys who made the allegations and "for all those affected by the horror of sexual abuse."

Saturday, prosecutors charged McCormack with fondling two boys, beginning when they were ages 8 and 9. One boy allegedly was fondled two to three times a month for more than three years. The other boy allegedly was fondled twice.

McCormack allegedly gave gifts to the boys and told them not to tell anyone. But according to prosecutors, one boy did tell his parents a couple of months ago, and they went to authorities. The other boy allegedly came forward last week, telling the principal of the parish school, Our Lady of the Westside. The principal contacted police.

"All the credit goes to these families who had the wisdom and courage to turn to law enforcement," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It is very sad and frustrating when families even today turn first to church officials instead of criminal authorities."

McCormack could not be reached Sunday, and a family member declined to comment.

McCormack's attorney, Patrick G. Reardon, would not answer questions about the allegations, saying only, "I think there's a presumption of innocence. He entered a plea of not guilty."

The Rev. Tom Walsh, who is filling in for McCormack, said "Father Dan has cooperated with investigators, and he has good legal counsel."

'No crisis can take us from God'

The vast majority of sexual abuse allegations made against priests turn out to be true, said Survivors Network president Barbara Blaine.

But Walsh said parishioners "are praying these things are not true because they love their pastor." Early Sunday morning, Walsh changed the church sign, which usually contains announcements, and inserted the words, "Pray, pray, pray."

That was the theme of Walsh's homily at the 10:30 a.m. Mass. "No crisis can stop us from praying. No crisis can take us from God" Walsh said. "We will rise up above this situation. We will clear up the storm clouds if we keep praying."

St. Agatha, founded in 1893, has about 550 families. Last year, three other Lawndale parishes were closed and combined with St. Agatha.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.