Priest Case Will Spur Review of Guidelines
By Manya A. Brachear email@example.com
January 29, 2006
Prompted by debate over whether Catholic officials waited too long to remove a Chicago priest accused of sex abuse, a national watchdog panel plans to discuss whether current guidelines adequately address cases where the alleged victim chooses to deal exclusively with law enforcement.
Critics say Rev. Daniel McCormack should have been suspended in September from St. Agatha Church, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd., after police received an initial allegation that he had sexually abused a child. Police and prosecutors concluded then that the evidence was not strong enough to charge the priest.
Instead of removing McCormack, the archdiocese told Rev. Tom Walsh, a priest who temporarily lived with McCormack, that an "unfounded allegation" had been reported and asked Walsh to make sure McCormack did not invite children into the rectory, communications director Colleen Dolan said Friday.
McCormack was not removed from ministry until after police arrested him Jan. 20 in a different abuse allegation.
The archdiocese said it could not pursue its own inquiry into the first case because police and prosecutors did not share any details of the complaint or subsequent investigation. The family of the accuser also declined to speak with church officials.
On Saturday, Cardinal Francis George said that when victims take their allegations to the police and not the church, it makes it harder for clergy leaders to react and follow protocol.
"What this case raises is the issue of allegations which are not brought to the church and how the church responds in that set of circumstances," said Patricia Ewers, chairwoman of the National Review Board, a group of legal experts, doctors and other professionals tapped by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to monitor procedures in each diocese for dealing with abuse allegations.
"In the past, the majority of cases have come to the church first," Ewers said. "And part of our problem in the past was that the church did not involve the police appropriately.... We haven't been in situations where people went to the police first. Dealing with that issue really is something that is incumbent upon us given this new set of realities."
The review board will take up the matter at its February meeting, she said. Exceptional circumstances permit the board to recommend a "focused" audit of a diocese, though it is unclear whether the panel would pursue that option, Ewers added.
The archdiocese's handling of the case highlights the balancing act of protecting children and shielding priests whose reputations are on the line when they face a sexual-abuse allegation. Cardinal Francis George himself traveled to Rome in 2002 to negotiate policies that showed compassion to both victims and priests.
"We really do have some responsibility to the person who has been accused to at least have some credible amount of information before we, really in some ways, destroy another life," Ewers said.
Law enforcement officials said Friday they were continuing to interview people, including youths, who have come forward with information about McCormack since the priest was charged.
Church officials said they started actively investigating McCormack's past last week, after the second allegation against him surfaced. The family of the alleged victim in that case is cooperating with the archdiocese.
Canon law experts agree that the church's efforts to investigate the initial allegation were foiled by the lack of cooperation from the family and authorities. Without details of the allegation, the archdiocese could not confront McCormack and launch its own investigation.
"If the party making the allegation absolutely refuses to cooperate in any way, in terms of pure justice, there is very little that can be done," said Monsignor Brian Ferme, dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.
Charles Reid, an associate professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said canon law also demands a certain degree of caution when conducting investigations by dictating that no one is permitted to damage the reputation of a priest unnecessarily.
"There's this vast nervousness about this," Reid said. "You don't want to call up parishioners and say: `We've received a complaint. What do you know?' That would be around the parish in a New York second."
Ewers said the potential for a false allegation haunts Chicago because in 1993 a man filed suit claiming Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had sexually abused him when he was a pre-seminary student in Cincinnati and Bernardin was the city's archbishop. The accuser recanted his charges three months later.
Still, Ewers and others said it's unfortunate McCormack was not removed earlier.
"Canonically, it's clear they did the right thing," Ferme said. "Post facto, it's rather sad that they didn't act previously. It's easy in hindsight to say those things."
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