A Request of Cardinal George

National Catholic Reporter [Chicago IL]
March 31, 2006

Chicago Cardinal Francis George acknowledges responsibility for the fiasco that evolved out of what is supposed to be that archdiocese's child abuse prevention program.

He is right to do so. But we are left wondering what he means by that.

The details (see story) are damning: A high-profile priest known to some archdiocesan officials as a potential abuser since his seminary days was allowed to remain in parish service for four months after additional, and current, allegations of abuse were brought against him. Amazingly, in addition to his duties as parish pastor, Fr. Daniel McCormack continued to serve as a parochial school teacher and sports coach. Meanwhile, the priest appointed to "mind" McCormack was rarely present at the parish and had virtually no training regarding what such "minding" might entail.

Further, the report commissioned by the archdiocese to describe its procedures for dealing with "accused priest abusers" -- a study prompted by the McCormack revelations -- paints a Keystone Cops picture of oversight. The archdiocese's five official "minders" have little or no experience (or training) in overseeing sexual abusers, who live under minimal or nonexistent supervision, free to come and go as they please with access to vulnerable populations.

It's not the first time the archdiocese, and George, have acted cavalierly when it comes to child protection.

Three years ago, when it was revealed that the cardinal had hired a priest-liturgist from Delaware, Fr. Kenneth Martin, to assist an archdiocese-owned publisher, and that the priest, who resided part-time at the cardinal's mansion, had been charged with abusing a high school boy in the 1970s, George did not appear upset.

"I called his bishop, and his bishop said, ‘He's a priest in good standing,' and I said, ‘OK,' " George told the Chicago Sun-Times.

"If he's a priest in good standing, I don't think his bishop thinks he's a threat, and his bishop is a responsible man, in my experience with him," George added. "[Martin] is doing a certain limited job here, and he's doing it well."

One bishop tells another bishop that it's "OK" to hire an alleged abuser, to give him shelter in a cardinal's mansion, so it's OK.

It's not OK. It's emblematic of a much deeper problem.

Meanwhile, accusations made two years ago against another Chicago pastor seemed to have been largely ignored until the McCormack mess hit the papers, at which point that pastor was quickly put on leave.

Speaking in late January, just before the McCormack story broke, George told the Sun-Times that the abuse crisis was "contained" that the "level of anger can't be sustained indefinitely."

George is not just any archbishop. He is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and if tradition holds, will be its next president. He was a key participant in developing the bishops' charter that governs the U.S. church's treatment of alleged clergy abusers and of the "mixed-commission" that worked with Vatican officials to harmonize that charter with universal church law. He is widely respected both for his intellect and for his civility.

So his disregard for the rules he helped fashion, for the process that was in place in his archdiocese, for the warnings issued by his own diocesan review board is utterly confounding and deeply disturbing.

* * *

In another story in this issue, Washington writer Joe Feuerherd reports on the spreading debate over whether the church should fight the growing movement to roll back statutes of limitations to allow complainants to file suit even in cases that occurred decades ago (see story).

Any reasonable person would quickly ask how cases that old could be fairly adjudicated. Perhaps many such cases would simply fail for reasons already cited by bishops objecting to the changes in law: Witnesses die, memories fade, evidence is destroyed.

However, there are equally compelling reasons to see the matter from the other direction. We know well enough now that victims of childhood sexual abuse, incurred in secret and likely at the hands of a trusted authority figure, often suppress memories of the abuse until decades after it occurred. We also know that many witnesses -- bishops, priests, family members -- are still alive. Most important, if the experience in archdioceses such as Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles are any indication, we know that there is significant evidence in the form of personnel files, communications and legal documents that still exists.

All that notwithstanding, there are other sound reasons to question the wisdom of flinging open an unlimited window to allow a limited class of complainants to pursue cases essentially against a single institution.

The problem the church has in all of this -- in attempting to raise even reasonable objections -- is one of credibility. Its leaders have performed so badly, so contrary to the institution's essential purpose and mission, that they have great difficulty persuading anyone to take them seriously.

The situation isn't helped by those who now raise the specter of anti-Catholicism as a motive for those who seek redress. A cursory scan of Catholic leaders in any significant sector of society, from business to academia to politics to the judicial system, bares that argument as a desperate rant. Is the church feeling the frustration of those who realize there is no way to hold the hierarchy accountable for even the most egregious violations of moral and civil law? Certainly. And are some more than eager to point out the hypocrisy of an institution that touts its regard for human dignity yet treats child victims so shabbily over decades? You bet.

Fight they will, we are certain. And they may win some, lose some and even come to some acceptable compromise in others. In the end, however, as has occurred in nearly every other step they've taken along the agonizing path of this scandal, the bishops will be left with the same fundamental problem: a lack of trust and credibility within the Catholic community and in the wider culture. There will remain the overwhelming perception that their apologies and words of concern are for show and that what they most deeply care about is protecting their own positions and maintaining the institutional status quo.

* * *

George said he takes responsibility for what has happened in Chicago. Taking "responsibility," if the word is to have any meaning, involves consequences.

In the world in which most Catholics live and work -- the world where there are no lifetime guarantees of position or income -- serious breaches of ethics or serious lapses in performance have serious consequences. In the language of the ordinary workplace, "heads roll."

It would be easy to ask George to resign in light of his disregard for the rules aimed at protecting children. We can understand those who have mounted a campaign asking him to step down.

However, let us subject that idea to a little ecclesiastical realpolitik. The reality is that cardinals and bishops don't resign. Occasionally they get hounded out. And if Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, is any example, it took thousands of pages of documentation that showed him willfully, repeatedly and unrepentantly protective of abusers and dismissive of victims. It took months of bad publicity, a national furor and the open revolt of his priests. Only then was he removed -- to a cushy job in Rome, where he retains positions on important congregations, gets a monthly stipend and a driver.

What's the alternative?

Often we ask our bishops to act more as if they are leaders of a community and less as corporate executives. So we'd turn the tables on ourselves in this case and take one more chance at trust, as members of a community, and ask George to make "taking responsibility" mean something. That trust, tentative as it might be, is based at least on the fact that he commissioned and then released reports highly critical of his handling of the situation in Chicago.

Beyond that essential step toward honesty we ask that George use the bully pulpit of Chicago, his elected position within the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the respect he enjoys both in the United States and in Rome to press for the kind of disclosure and honest reckoning that would finally demonstrate that:

  • The church is at heart a sacramental community that believes in confession and forgiveness;
  • The church believes that the truth will set us free;
  • Church leaders have the best interests of the community, particularly those most harmed by the scandal, at heart;
  • Church leaders are willing to investigate the clerical/hierarchical culture in which this cancerous scandal took hold and in which it spread and to make the changes necessary to bring transparency and accountability to that structure.
George has not sought the bright lights and the major stage. His manner is, if anything, understated. The bright lights, in a cruel way, have sought him and we beseech him to take this awful moment and turn it to opportunity.

We hope he uses all the means at his disposal to convince both the Vatican and his brother bishops to take the radical steps necessary to pull the church from this quagmire. That means convincing brother bishops that full disclosure -- beyond the lists of self-reported numbers and rote paragraphs about what's being done -- is essential. For the sake of the community, each diocese should compile a panel of trustworthy, independent professionals to read through the documents that dioceses possess dealing with how abusers were handled. Those panels can, without betraying confidences, compile truthful and comprehensive accounts of what happened in each diocese. Let the community know what it has a right to know.

From the benefit of his own harsh experience, George could emphasize the importance of integrating independent, competent and fully authorized lay people into the process of assessing the status of accused priests. It goes without saying that their recommendations should be followed, not ignored.

Finally, but perhaps most important, he could lead his brother bishops in an unprecedented and deep search into the culture of the hierarchy. What about it allowed men entrusted with the souls of a community to routinely betray that trust? What needs to change to bring transparency and to restore confidence in authority?

The community is exhausted. We are tired of hearing about sex abuse; tired of writing about it; tired of not knowing what the next disclosure will bring; tired of apologies that mean little.

The answer lies not in some magic wish that it all go away and that the community once again become a crowd of compliant Catholics. The answer lies in what we all know, the faith that we profess, the sacramental life that sustains us.


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