George Takes the Defensive
Lack of Cooperation Stymied Priest Inquiry, He Says

By David Heinzmann and Manya A. Brachear
Chicago Tribune
January 27, 2006,1,3376758.story?coll=chi-newslocalchicago-hed

Cardinal Francis George Thursday defended the decision that allowed a West Side pastor to stay in his parish for months after an accusation of child sexual abuse, even as critics raised new questions about how the archdiocese handled the case, both last fall and as early as 2000.

George, who returned from Rome Wednesday night, issued a statement supporting the position of archdiocese officials that they could not investigate Rev. Daniel J. McCormack because of a lack of cooperation from the alleged victim's family and from law enforcement.

Shortly after George released the statement, in which he also offered prayers for the alleged victims of the priest, archdiocese officials said the cardinal had been admitted to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood because of dizzy spells.

Critics say McCormack should have been removed in September from St. Agatha's Church, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd., while church officials determined whether he had abused children. But removing him without determining the allegation's credibility would have been unfair to the priest, George's statement said.

"The archdiocese, despite many requests, has still not received either the police interview of last August or any allegation against Father McCormack that could be used to begin an investigation on our part," George said. " ... It seems to me morally wrong to insist that anyone should be punished on the basis of a story that could not be investigated. If this were the practice, no one would be safe."

Prosecutors informed the archdiocese of the allegation in September when they determined they lacked enough evidence to charge the priest. However, they did not share any details of their investigation with the archdiocese, said police and prosecutors.

Also on Thursday, archdiocese Chancellor Jimmy Lago said officials were looking into the claims of a nun who said she alerted church officials to McCormack's possible inappropriate contact with a child in 2000.

Lago said recollections of church staff members about the nun's communication are conflicting. And, he said, they cannot find a letter the nun says she gave the archdiocese school office to document her concerns.

Lago also criticized the nun, who he said was principal of Holy Family School, 1029 S. May St., for not reporting her concerns directly to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, as she would have been required by law to do.

The nun "had the responsibility as a mandated reporter to report to DCFS," Lago said. "You can't pass the buck. You can't send it downtown."

DCFS officials confirmed Thursday that they were not notified of the accusation in 2000.

McCormack was charged last week with two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a child after a second boy accused him of sexual misconduct. Authorities found the second boy's story corroborated the first accusation from August. The second allegation surfaced last week after the boy, a 13-year-old student at St. Agatha's, was brought to the principal's office on a disciplinary matter.

Danielle Cherry said that matter involved the boy acting out sexually with her daughter, a classmate. She said the incident occurred on Jan. 17 and her daughter told school officials the next day, a Wednesday. Cherry said school officials questioned the boy about the claim, which led to the accusation about McCormack. Police confirmed a police report had been filed by Cherry.

DCFS contacted her after the report was filed and scheduled an interview about the matter Thursday night, she said.

Police continue to pursue leads from other families or individuals who either have alleged abuse by McCormack or have offered other information in the case, police spokeswoman Monique Bond said. McCormack was released from bail last weekend after posting a $200,000 bond.

The archdiocese's decision not to remove McCormack last fall while police and prosecutors continued to investigate was a mistake, said Illinois Appellate Court Judge Anne Burke, former chair of the National Review Board established by American Catholic bishops in 2002.

"It is not left up to the discretion of the archdiocese in making decisions," she said. "This is why we had the crisis in the first place. Many times an allegation for assault of a minor doesn't always rise to criminal conduct that is going to be indictable. That doesn't mean it didn't happen."

Burke said the National Review Board should seek an investigation of whether the archdiocese followed proper procedures. But Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said reviewing local diocesan handling of cases is not the role of the National Review Board.

"It is not a court of appeals on individual cases," he said. When asked how dioceses are held accountable to the mandates of the charter, he refused to respond, saying the question was based on an assumption of wrongdoing.

"Let's see how things turn out," he said. "You are asking me hypothetical questions that I simply won't answer. It's a local particular church. It's a universal church headed by the Holy Father in Rome. There is not a governance body that comes over them."

Church officials who worked with McCormack have repeated they saw no signs of improper conduct from the priest. Rev. James Presta, rector of St. Joseph's Seminary at Loyola University, was McCormack's boss at the school from 1997 to 2000. He said he never had any cause for alarm. McCormack went to St. Agatha's in 2000.

"None whatsoever. I feel very strongly about that. He was a good priest who did his job here and was respected," Presta said. "I personally saw no evidence of anything that would lead me to believe any of the things I'm reading."

Just days before McCormack was brought in for questioning, George tapped him to serve as dean of Deanery III-D, with some leadership responsibilities for 20 West Side parishes. The appointment took effect on Sept. 1, the day the archdiocese learned of the accusation.


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