Abuse Case Points to Possible Policy Change
McCormack Charged Following Boys' Allegations at Our Lady of the Westside School
By Michelle Martin
The Catholic New World [Chicago IL]
February 6, 2006
The case of Father Daniel J. McCormack has pointed out a need for adjustments to archdiocesan policies when it comes to removing priests from ministry following allegations of sex abuse, said Cardinal George.
The archdiocese had no mechanism to remove McCormack as pastor of St. Agatha Parish after police launched an abuse investigation against him because the alleged victim did not make a statement to church officials. The cardinal said at a Jan. 28 news conference that he will ask other bishops for input on what to do in such situations at the March meeting of the Catholic Conference of Illinois and bring it up to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which he serves as vice president.
At the news conference and at a Jan. 30 meeting with about 200 parents and parishioners at St. Agatha (see story, Page 21), Cardinal George acknowledged that the system the archdiocese has had in place since 2002 did not work as it should have. The policies in place, he said, depend on getting an accusation from a victim or a family member which then could be submitted to the archdiocesan Professional Review Board to determine if it was "credible," a finding which requires a lower level of evidence than a criminal charge. But the victim's family refused to talk to archdiocesan officials, he said, despite several efforts.
"If I knew then what I know now, I would have acted differently," the cardinal said during the hour-long meeting with the media. "I think I would have found a way to remove him."
On Jan. 31, as The Catholic New World was going to press, archdiocesan communications director Colleen Dolan told media that the archdiocese had removed another priest from ministry as it looked into allegations that he abused more than 20 years ago. She did not identify the priest, but said parishes where he served would be notified Feb. 4 and 5.
The same day, attorney Jeffrey Anderson announced that he had filed suit against the archdiocese seeking a list of all priests with credible allegations of abuse made against them.
Initially, when word broke that McCormack had been arrested Jan. 20, it appeared that the archdiocese's reporting procedures had worked.
The arrest came after a 13-year-old boy at Our Lady of the Westside School's St. Agatha Campus told a school official about the alleged abuse. The official reported the allegations to the archdiocese and to the Cook County State's Attorney, which led to McCormack's arrest.
But in a matter of days, it was revealed that McCormack had been questioned by police in August about allegations of abuse by a second boy. News of the previous allegation had many Chicago Catholics - including Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anne Burke, former chair of the National Review Board - questioning the church's efforts to remove clergy from ministry following sexual abuse accusations. Archdiocesan officials also had to consider how to deal with sexual abuse cases when they have no statement from the victim.
Cardinal George defended his commitment to the zero-tolerance policy of the 2002 Dallas Charter the day after he was released from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where he had undergone tests for dizzy spells. He affirmed that in retrospect there should have been a way under church law to remove McCormack, even temporarily.
Now, the cardinal said, he is concerned about the children affected by the case.
"My primary concern is taking care of all the children. My concern is the children of St. Agatha School."
In the case of the 13-year-old, the boy said McCormack, who coached his basketball team, touched his genitals once or twice a month. The alleged abuse happened after school in the rectory for three and a half years until January 2005. The other boy, now 11, told his mother that on two occasions in December 2003 McCormack fondled his genitals in the church.
A third allegation, made by a nun who was principal of Holy Family School in 2000, added to the concern. The nun said a fourth-grader at her school told her McCormack had told him to pull down his pants so McCormack could measure the boy, who had asked if he could be an altar server.
The sister said the boy's mother met with McCormack, after which the mother asked her not to pursue the issue. But the principal said she did discuss it with an official at the Office for Catholic Schools, and hand-delivered a letter to the office. That letter has not been found. At the time, however, it appeared that neither the nun nor school officials reported the accusation to civil authorities, which is archdiocesan policy.
On Jan. 30, attorney Jeffrey Anderson announced that he had taken the case of another alleged victim, a boy under 12 years old who said he was molested at St. Agatha within the last two years.
When McCormack was arrested, Cardinal George was on a trip that took him from a conference in New Zealand to a visit to members of his order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Thailand, and then to the Vatican where he gave an address on Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, "God is Love." He returned to Chicago late Jan. 25, and was taken to the hospital the next day.
The cardinal met with media Jan. 28 to answer questions about the case and explain why McCormack was not removed from ministry in August.
The process to remove a priest that is outlined by the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Young People and its accompanying Essential Norms starts when a diocese receives an allegation of abuse, the cardinal said.
If the allegation is deemed credible - a far lower standard than would be necessary for criminal charges - the priest is removed from ministry.
But the allegation can come only from the victim, or in the case of a minor, the victim's parents or guardians. In the case reported to police in August, the archdiocese never received an allegation, des-pite asking the state's attorney repeatedly for information.
"Part of the problem was we couldn't get information from them, not that they couldn't get information from us," Cardinal George said. "We didn't know what the allegation was. We didn't even know who the young child was."
The archdiocese only knew McCormack had been questioned because he reported it to the Vicar for Priests, Cardinal George said. At the time, McCormack was told not to be alone with children, and another priest living at St. Agatha was asked to monitor his behavior while the archdiocese tried to get the victim's family to come forward.
"We restricted him as much as we could while keeping him in place," Cardinal George said. "We wanted to see if we could make that process work, and that never happened."
Just before the allegations came out, McCormack had been appointed dean for several parishes in the area; that appointment took effect in September. He also continued to coach an after-school basketball team, and the school principal was never told that the police had questioned McCormack.
McCormack, 37, was ordained in 1994 after going through the archdiocesan seminaries, starting at Quigley Seminary South. His first parish assignment was at St. Ailbe, where he served as an associate pastor until 1997. He then taught history and did formation work at St. Joseph College Seminary while serving as a sacramental minister at Holy Family Parish on Roosevelt Road until September 2000, when he was named pastor at St. Agatha. He is now free on $200,000 bond. He is staying with at his brother's south suburban home and has been ordered to have no contact with children.
"We were expecting to have an allegation, which would have moved things along very quickly," the cardinal said. "The reasoning that would have removed him as dean also would have removed him as pastor."
As for the incident in 2000, Cardinal George praised the former principal for coming forward, but noted that archdiocesan policies as well as state law mandated both her and the schools office official she spoke with to report the matter to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; neither did.
"If the policies had been followed at that time, we wouldn't be here," Cardinal George said.
In the case that led to McCormack's questioning last August, the archdiocesan policies never had a chance to work, the cardinal said.
"We didn't have the process down for an allegation that didn't come to us," he said. "It's like walking on quicksand a little bit. You think you have things put together so everything can be faced and processed, and all of the sudden, you find out you don't."
Reflecting on the situation, the cardinal said that the monitoring plan at least should have been more extensive.
"You have to err on the side of the children," he said. "I think what we should have done is included in the monitoring not only the priest living with him, but also the principal at the school and maybe another parent from the community."
But doing so would have raised privacy issues, the cardinal said, and removing McCormack, whom the cardinal said had a "sterling reputation" without giving him an opportunity to defend himself would have been contrary to canon law. And without a formal allegation, McCormack would have had nothing to defend himself against.
Possible revisions to those policies could come out the March meeting of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. It would be then up to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to act.
Asked what he has learned, the cardinal said:
"I've learned a lot about Father McCormack. I've been here for eight years, and his reputation was sterling. He did everything well. It's a learning experience which is very sad, but very necessary for the protection of children."
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