Chancellor to Go after Accused Priests

By Eric Herman
Chicago Sun-Times
February 16, 2006

Stung by accusations it ignored charges of sexual abuse against two priests, the Archdiocese of Chicago tapped its chancellor to oversee future investigations. The official, Jimmy Lago, immediately said the archdiocese would change its policy to make it easier to remove accused priests from active ministry.

Lago will also bring in an outside auditor to review two recent high-profile abuse cases. Another auditor will review the policies of the archdiocese.

"The buck needs to stop somewhere, and somebody needs to be held accountable. And that's me," said Lago, chancellor of the archdiocese since 2000.

In a memo sent Tuesday to archdiocese staff, Cardinal Francis George said Lago's "new position is necessary because of the complexity of responsibilities and the sometimes uncertain information that has to be shared."


New archdiocese measures to deal with abuse cases:

  • Chancellor Jimmy Lago will oversee investigations.

  • Outside auditors will review McCormack and Bennett cases, as well as monitoring policy.

  • Being questioned by police will now be grounds for a priest's temporary removal from active ministry.

  • The archdiocese will report allegations to authorities even when the alleged victim is no longer a minor.
The measures come in response to blistering criticism of George's handling of charges against the Rev. Daniel McCormack, a West Side priest accused of abusing three boys. The cardinal has also come under fire for failing to remove the Rev. Joseph Bennett, a priest in South Holland alleged to have molested children in the late 1960s.

Removing accused priests

Church officials first learned of allegations against McCormack in August. But he remained in his position at St. Agatha's Church because prosecutors decided not to charge him with a crime. Also, the archdiocese said it could not get the information it needed for its own review.

Based on allegations made by another boy, prosecutors brought criminal charges against McCormack in January. The priest has pleaded not guilty. Two civil lawsuits have been filed against the archdiocese over his alleged abuse.

No criminal charges have been filed against Bennett, though he was removed from his post at Holy Ghost Church this month.

Though he later apologized for not acting sooner in McCormack's case, George initially said his options were limited because accusations were directed to police, not the archdiocese. But from now on, Lago said, the fact of a priest being brought in for questioning will be enough to remove him from active ministry -- at least temporarily.

Auditors' hiring is 'good news'

"For current cases, where the accuser is a child and the police have brought someone in for questioning because they think it's significant, we will act to temporarily remove the priest from ministry," Lago said.

To review what went wrong in the McCormack and Bennett cases, Lago is bringing in Defenbaugh and Associates Inc., a security consulting and investigations firm. The firm has conducted audits for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Lago has also hired Terry Childers, an expert on supervising sex offenders and a former officer in the U.S. probation system, to review the archdiocese's monitoring policy. In McCormack's case, George came under fire in part for placing the priest under "monitoring" instead of removing him from contact with children.

Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anne Burke, head of a lay watchdog group, the National Review Board, that oversees the U.S. Catholic Church's zero-tolerance policy of priest sex abuse, called the hiring of outside auditors "good news."

"The problem I see is that there isn't an independent person overseeing all of this -- an independent board that would really be the go-between" to supervise the auditors' work, Burke said.

While calling Lago "a fine man," Burke questioned having an archdiocese insider oversee reforms.

Measures seen as 'nothing new'

"He could be very well independent. . . . But the perception to third parties is that he's probably not," she said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, dismissed the measures as "nothing new."

George, Clohessy said, "always has had the ability to remove accused molesters quickly. He simply hasn't done it. And his insistence on shifting blame to some allegedly flawed policy is absurd."


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