Contrite Cardinal Offers Answers

By Cathleen Falsani
Chicago Sun-Times
January 29, 2006

Somberly, in a voice tempered by pain and contrition, Cardinal Francis George for more than an hour Saturday afternoon answered questions from reporters for the first time about the Rev. Daniel McCormack, a Chicago priest who was charged last week with sexually abusing two boys.

"The sins of priests and bishops destroy the church," George said quietly, his eyes cast down at the podium standing between him and phalanx of reporters at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago's Pastoral Center on East Superior. "That is what we're seeing."

The cardinal-archbishop praised a nun for coming forward with an allegation against McCormack from 2000, expressed grief for the priest's wounded flock and acknowledged inadequacies in the way priest's case was handled.

"I'm worried," he said. "I'm worried about the children. I'm worried about a lot of things."

George, 69, spent most of Thursday and Friday in the hospital undergoing tests for dizzy spells he suffered after returning from a long trip overseas. Doctors found nothing seriously wrong with the cardinal, ruling out a stroke. When he returned to his Gold Coast home late Friday afternoon, reporters were told George was taking the weekend off to recuperate from an ear infection, exhaustion and dehydration.

Was in Thailand at time

Instead, the cardinal, who was in Thailand when McCormack, 37, was charged with two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse last weekend, seemed to have spent Friday night reading through news stories about McCormack and criticism of how the Chicago archdiocese had handled the accusations of abuse against him.

By Saturday morning, George surprised even his own aides by calling a press conference.

"As I tried to follow the Dan McCormack matter as best I could the last several days, it became clear to me last night that it wouldn't be possible to have a complete conversation without your having an opportunity to question me," the cardinal told reporters.

George answered more than 40 questions, many involving why he had not removed McCormack from his position as pastor of St. Agatha last August when police questioned the priest for allegedly abusing an 8-year-old Willowbrook boy twice in December 2003 inside the North Lawndale church. That boy is now 11.

At the time authorities did not find sufficient evidence to press charges against McCormack, who was ordained a priest in 1994 and had been St. Agatha's pastor for six years. Archdiocesan officials were aware of the accusations against McCormack in August.

'Otherwise it's hearsay'

"You can't just snap your fingers and remove a pastor. There is a canonical process," George said. "Had I known then what I know now, I think I would have found some way to take him out."

The cardinal was hamstrung by a technicality in church law, he explained. According to protocols for handing allegations of clergy sex abuse of minors drafted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and approved by the Vatican in 2002, any clergyman with even one "credible allegation of abuse" against him must be removed from ministry.

In order for a priest to be removed from ministry, the allegations against him must be vetted by an archdiocesan review board that does its own investigation.

But for an allegation to be deemed credible it must be brought to the archdiocese by the victim or the victim's parent or guardian, George said. "Otherwise it's hearsay . . . To investigate it, we have to get the information from the victim himself."

Couldn't get information

Neither the Willowbrook boy nor his parents has ever brought accusations directly to the archdiocese, thereby stalling the canonical process by which McCormack could have been removed, George said. McCormack was removed from St. Agatha only after he was criminally charged.

"When we tried to get the information from the state, we couldn't get it. In a sense, it's the opposite of what you usually think of as a cover-up. . . . In this case, we didn't have the information and the state did have it. We asked the state for it and we couldn't get it for their own reasons," George said.

John Gorman, spokesman for Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, said the archdiocese asked for police notes of an interview with the Willowbrook boy. "We advised them that if they wanted to get those they would probably need a subpoena, but that they would probably need to take that up with the police department," Gorman said.

George said he knows the church law explanation won't wash with many Catholics who are angered by the McCormack scandal. "It sounds legalistic and I'm sorry about that, but that's the way we have to proceed in order to be sure that you can take someone out," he said.

U.S. bishops have to figure out what to do when an alleged victim takes his or her allegations to civil authorities, but not to church officials, George said, adding that he expects to bring the issue before a meeting of the Catholic bishops of Illinois in March.

In addition to the Willowbrook boy's case, McCormack has been criminally charged with fondling a 13-year-old St. Agatha student. That boy claims the priest abused him two to three times a month from September 2001 (when he was 9) until January 2005.

Last week, a nun who worked at now-shuttered Holy Family school in Chicago where McCormack said weekly mass told the Chicago Sun-Times that in 2000 she informed a Chicago Catholic Schools official — both verbally and in a letter hand-delivered to him — that McCormack had told a fourth-grader, who wanted to be an altar boy, to pull down his pants when the two were alone in the sacristy. Her warnings went unheeded, she says.

When asked about the nun's story, George said archdiocesan officials had not been able to locate the letter, and that there were conflicting accounts of what exactly was said in the conversations she had with her superior in the Catholic schools office.

'You hope it's not true'

"If the policies were followed at that time, we wouldn't be here today," the cardinal said. But he quickly added, "She deserves great credit. . . . We were in the year 2000. This was before Dallas [in 2002 when the U.S. bishops drafted their zero-tolerance policy for clergy abuse] and people were just getting used to modified rules about reporters — who has to report and who doesn't."

Does he think McCormack is guilty of the allegations against him?

"I think it wouldn't be right for me to say that," George answered. "I've been here for eight years and he's a priest whose reputation was sterling. . . . To find out, as I have, that there is another side to him, is a learning experience which is very sad, and very necessary for the protection of children."

A few minutes later, the cardinal said sadly, "Each time you hope it's not true. And more often than not, it turns out to be true."


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