When to Put Priests on Desk Duty
Stung by New Sex Abuse Charges, the Chicago Archdiocese Plans Tougher Policies for Dealing with Accused Priests
By Eric Ferkenhoff
Time [Chicago IL]
February 17, 2006
It's one thing to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by priests, but it's quite another to keep those priests from further abusing their positions of authority — something the Chicago Archdiocese recently learned the hard way. Earlier this month, Father Daniel McCormack, 37, a priest at St. Agatha Church in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood, was charged with three counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse against two boys from his Parish, including one who was allegedly molested after the first accusations against McCormack surfaced last August. The case has shamed the archdiocese, which was hit with a $10 million suit last Friday, and Cardinal Francis George, who admitted in a rare mea culpa that he had failed to act quickly in removing the accused priest.
So it was that earlier this week the Archdiocese announced a new approach in dealing with the investigations of sexual abuse by the clergy. From now on, the Church plans to remove priests almost immediately after they are accused — effectively putting them on the ecclestiastical equivalent of desk duty. The archdiocese's current chancellor, Jimmy Lago, will oversee all probes of abuse allegations against priests across Chicago.
George's announcement came just days before a meeting in Austin, Texas of the National Review Board, a lay body set up to monitor the sex abuse scandals and craft policies for dealing with the problem. The Chicago policy shift is sure to dominate the agenda, especially since it could actually mark a break from canon law, which dictates that priests cannot be removed until they have legal representation and allegations have been substantiated. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said: "Whatever the Cardinal decided to do, it will have to conform with canon law. But the Cardinal has said all along that he will find a way to do it, to remove priests immediately."
Soon after the charges were filed against McCormack, there was no shortage of finger-pointing between the archdiocese and police and prosecutors over who it was that actually dropped the ball. The original allegations were first made to the police, which ended up choosing not to press charges at the time, according to the Archdiocese. And when the church did ultimately talk directly to the boy's lawyer, they couldn't independently confirm the accusations against McCormack, who was allowed to stay on as pastor at the church and basketball coach in the parish school.
McCormack's attorney, Patrick Reardon, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case. But he did say that he views very skeptically the motives of critical groups like Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests."There seems to be a small group of people determined to make Chicago look bad and they're holding my client up," said Reardon. "I think the Cardinal is apologizing for mistakes that weren't made," he said.
As part of the new approach, Mr. Lago has hired the Austin firm of Defenbaugh and Associates, Inc., which has helped investigate management of such cases for other dioceses in the country, as well as a former senior federal parole officer who drafted guidelines for the federal courts in dealing with sex abuse cases. In addition, he has ordered archdiocese officials to begin greater sharing of information on sex abuse claims with local law enforcement. "We need to take steps at the very beginning of the process so priests aren't left in ministry during the course of an investigation," says Lago. "I want to be the guy looking over someone's shoulder."
To "They blew it," said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has brought a suit against the archdiocese in the McCormack case. (Lawyers for the Archdiocese couldn't be reached for comment about the lawsuit.) "The fact is that the archdiocese has had a long time to deal with this issue, and here the Cardinal and Bishops are not doing the right thing. This isn't [just]about the victims anymore. This is about them breaking promises."
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