George: 'I'm Saddened by My Own Failure'

By Cathleen Falsani
Chicago Sun-Times
February 3, 2006

As Cardinal Francis George began to realize Thursday that, according to prosecutors, at least one child may have been molested by the Rev. Daniel McCormack because he didn't remove the priest from ministry when sex abuse allegations surfaced last August, his emotions bubbled to the surface.

After an elaborate two-hour mass at Holy Name Cathedral, where the cardinal installed the Rev. George Rassas as a new auxiliary bishop for the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese, while talking to reporters, George's normally steady voice faltered.

George, 69, was discussing what may have been prevented had he acted sooner to remove McCormack, 37 -- who has been charged with molesting three boys -- from St. Agatha's parish.

"I get ... ya know ... very ... troubled," George said, clearing his throat as his voice caught momentarily. "Remorseful. There is no point in getting upset; you do your work, and you don't let that paralyze you.

"But I can't imagine what must be in the hearts of many people again," he said. "We thought this was done, or at least contained, and it doesn't seem to have been. I can only apologize for that."

McCormack was charged Wednesday with one count of aggravated criminal sexual abuse for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old Chicago boy in the rectory of the North Lawndale church. The priest was charged Jan. 21 with two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse for allegedly fondling two other young boys at the parish between September 2001 and January 2005.

'I'm saddened by my own failure'

The 11-year-old boy, who came forward Monday, claims the abuse began in October 2004 and continued until Dec. 31, 2005 -- four months after George had decided not to remove McCormack from St. Agatha, instead appointing another priest as a monitor to ensure McCormack was never alone with children.

"I hope that if there is anyone else abused by Dan McCormack that he or she will come forward," George said Thursday. "I'm saddened by my own failure -- very much so. I pray that there will be nobody who has been abused by Father McCormack who would not have been had I taken him out. That's a constant worry."

The McCormack case is the first time in George's eight-year tenure as head of the Chicago archdiocese that he has faced real-time abuse allegations. The vast majority of clergy sexual abuse complaints the archdiocese receives are brought by adults who claim they were abused as children years earlier.

'We got used to that pattern'

In those cases, the archdiocese is supposed to report allegations immediately to civil authorities and then begin its own investigation. A archdiocesan review board of lay Catholics and clergy vets the allegations and makes a recommendation to the cardinal about whether they deem the allegations credible.

George decides whether the priest should be removed from ministry and then sends the priest's case to the Vatican, which must give him approval in order to permanently remove a priest from the ministry.

"I think we got used to that pattern. I know I did," George admitted. "It didn't take hold immediately that this was current and I should have found at least some fashion in the canons, some way to remove Father McCormack."

Earlier this week, George also removed the Rev. Joseph Bennett from his pastorate at Holy Ghost parish in South Holland. In 2003 and 2004, two women now in their 40s brought allegations to the archdiocese, claiming Bennett, now 65, sexually abused them in the late 1960s at St. John de la Salle parish in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood.

The archdiocesan review board has been investigating the women's allegations for more than two years, and on Oct. 15, 2005, they presented their findings to George. One of the victims, a woman identified only as "Therese," and her attorney, Jeff Anderson, criticized the cardinal for dragging his heels and not removing Bennett.

On Thursday, George said he had been ready to act on the review board's recommendation, which has not been revealed, last October. But he then realized Bennett had not been represented by an attorney, which is a violation of canon law, he said. So he sent the matter back to the review board to be completed.

'Assume it is true'

The cardinal said he has consulted with canon lawyers and other experts to try to come up with a way to remove priests who are accused of abuse while the charges are investigated, without violating canon law.

The archdiocese hopes to announce next week its new method -- akin to police officers being assigned to a desk job while allegations against them are investigated internally -- and a "safety plan" for reporting early allegations to the parish and its neighbors, said Jimmy Lago, archdiocesan chancellor.

George admitted he didn't react more hastily to the McCormack case because the priest had an excellent reputation.

"I think that maybe lulled me into thinking maybe it wasn't true," the cardinal said. "I should have thought just the opposite: Assume it is true, and what do you do? I was looking for a pattern, and it wasn't there, and I said, well, wait until it is there, wait until they come forward.

"And that was a mistake."


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