No End to Debate on Abuse Archives
By Ofelia Casillas email@example.com and Manya A. Brachear firstname.lastname@example.org
February 21, 2006
Whether the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago should open its archives and allow child welfare officials to investigate all past abuse allegations against priests reflects a wider debate over the law that governs reports and investigations of abuse.
Child safety advocates say the statute is quite clear: The archdiocese is obligated to share the information, and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is liable to investigate it.
But advocates for priests say the requirement singles out Catholic clergy and exposes them to unnecessary public scrutiny, while former state investigators and watchdogs say such a project would strain an already taxed system that cannot handle its current caseload.
"They've got their work cut out for them," said Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris. "I just hope DCFS can handle it. ... If it's an inordinate amount of past and present cases they have to investigate, I can't help but think they are going to pull people from active cases."
According to a 2004 report, 55 Chicago priests had been involved in 142 cases of sexual abuse since 1950. It's unclear how many allegations were reported to the archdiocese and declared unfounded.
Colleen Dolan, director of communications for the archdiocese, said that although discussions between the church and DCFS continue, the state agency is not now entitled to see cases that date back more than 50 years. All allegations have been reported, as they should be, to the Cook and Lake County state's attorneys, she said.
But DCFS Director Bryan Samuels argues that his agency is responsible for looking into all complaints, especially if state investigators find a credible allegation against a priest who is still in ministry.
Last week, the archdiocese announced new protocols regarding abuse allegations, including greater communication with DCFS.
Chancellor Jimmy Lago said the church would rely on DCFS to rule whether a priest should be removed from ministry while the church conducts an investigation. Lago also said abuse allegations would, from now on, be reported to DCFS even if the alleged victim is an adult, as long as the abuse took place when he or she was a minor.
Reporting all cases to the state agency means those named in complaints found to be credible are entered in the State Central Registry that bars them from contact with children, Samuels said.
But church officials are not ready to report all past allegations against priests. Reporting allegations made by adults is already beyond what has been required of any religious or educational institution, Dolan said.
Indeed, the difference of interpretation reflects an ongoing debate over what exactly is required under the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, the statute that governs child abuse reports and investigations in Illinois, said Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children.
"There's always a question of `Is this something I report to police or the child abuse hot lines?'" Stermer said. "The reality is the statute is unequivocal."
"Everybody," he said, "needs to put themselves in the place of a parent of children who could possibly be in harm's way."
Dolan said the requirements aren't clear. "Because we're trying to define" the church's obligation, she said, "should not be interpreted as a lack of commitment to the protection of children."
In the past, Dolan said, DCFS has refused to investigate allegations made by adults, referring those claims to prosecutors instead.
Others say the state agency should be practical about its latest request. Henry Bayer, executive director for the labor union representing caseworkers, said DCFS has about 20 percent fewer investigators in Cook County than it did five years ago.
"They don't have enough investigators to complete the routine investigations," Bayer said. John Goad, the former chief of child protection investigations, said the requirement "could be a ton of work which they are not in the position to handle.
"It doesn't seem to me that it would be fair or reasonable to make demands of one denomination and not others. And, believe me, there are allegations against clergy of every denomination."
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