Church, DCFS at Odds

By Dave Orrick
Daily Herald [Chicago IL]
February 19, 2006

The Archdiocese of Chicago is refusing to give child welfare officials information about past allegations of sexual abuse by priests, despite a new vow to err on the side of child safety.

Child welfare officials say that refusal could put children at risk, since those priests could still be working with kids and there's no way to determine if a priest should be kept away from children without an investigation.

"The archdiocese retains information — and we don't know to what extent or scope — on children in the past who are now adults who may have been abused," said Diane Jackson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. "And that remains this way today."

The cases in question involve allegations made by an adult who was a child at the time of the alleged abuse.

Church officials say they've already turned over all of the relevant information to prosecutors so there's no need to give it to DCFS. And, they say, the Catholic church is being unfairly singled out.

Archdiocese Chancellor Jimmy Lago, who is heading up a new policy on sexual abuse, insisted Friday that the archdiocese isn't hiding pedophiles. But he also defended keeping certain records from DCFS on the grounds that the agency "has no jurisdiction."

Lago was tapped this week by Cardinal Francis George to implement the new policy in the wake of recent cases in which two priests, one in Chicago and the other in South Holland, remained in active ministry after they were accused of sexually abusing children.

Several children's advocates say the legal nuances cited by the archdiocese miss the big picture that ought to focus on protecting children.

The archdiocese policy states that all new allegations of abuse to children will be turned over to DCFS, even when the accuser comes forward after he or she has reached age 18.

But it does not include past cases.

For the past week, DCFS Director Bryan Samuels has been trying to convince the cardinal that information about past allegations of abuse should be handed over, Jackson said.

DCFS doesn't know how many accused priests might still have contact with children, she said.

"That's certainly a question for the archdiocese," Jackson said. "We obviously want all the allegations … but I guess we don't see eye to eye on that point."

Beginning last week, the debate over such cases has played out in correspondence between Samuels and George. While Jackson described the correspondence as "productive" and "professional," she said DCFS' position has been clear: The archdiocese is required by state law to report the old cases.

But Lago disagreed.

"Their (DCFS') own manual says they don't have jurisdiction when the person's not under 18," said Lago, a former social worker. "(Samuels is) asking us to do something that nobody else in the state is required to do."

Ben Wolf, an attorney with the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, which represents state wards in ongoing court cases, said he agrees with DCFS, but it has nothing to do with what the law says.

"I think the legal question is a close one, but since the goal of everyone here is to protect the children, the most common-sense solution is report (the cases)," Wolf said.

Lago said the cases in question have in fact been reported to prosecutors, even when the accuser is anonymous. A spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office confirmed that policy has been in place since 2003.

But DCFS has wider legal latitude to protect children than prosecutors and police, who can be hamstrung by statutes of limitations. For example, Jackson said, a priest who can't be charged with a crime by prosecutors can be separated from contact with children by DCFS, much in the way an abusive parent can be stripped of parental rights, even when no criminal charges are filed. Yet DCFS can do nothing if it isn't told of an allegation, she said.

Lago criticized DCFS for its own failings, including in years past when he said the department itself turned down information on cases when the accuser was an adult.

"If you believe Bryan Samuels, that DCFS is the savior for all this, then write that story," Lago said.

If state lawmakers want to change the law about which alleged abuses are required to be reported, they should act, he said.

"What's not going to solve this problem is DCFS going back and (investigating) all these old cases," Lago said.

Wolf said he didn't think that should matter.

"DCFS is not perfect, but now they want the information, and it makes sense to let the child welfare department try to do their job," Wolf said.

Jerry Stermer, president of the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children, agreed.

"We in society have asked DCFS to work vigorously to make sure that we're protecting all children in Illinois," Stermer said. "We have to find a way to coordinate efforts between institutions and this state agency. This matter is so complex that it challenges our collective thinking as a society to make sure that we have left no stone unturned to protect our children."

Lago said no priest with substantiated allegations against him has contact with children. As recently as September, for example, the archdiocese removed 11 accused priests from church assignments.

But critics like Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said such removals are based only on internal archdiocese investigations, and she says history has shown the archdiocese can't be trusted to police its own.

"Their policy is fluff," she said. "They never follow their policy."

The archdiocese's new policy calls for outside investigators, including a former federal investigator, to monitor the institution's policies.

Blaine said she was pleased to hear that DCFS would be willing to hear stories of adults who say they were abused as children. "We can send 20 people to DCFS this week."


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