With Release of Priest Abuse Documents, Victims 'Looking for Accountability'
By Manya Brachear Pashman and Stacy St. Clair
The Chicago Tribune
January 9, 2014
|Attorney Jeff Anderson (left) talks with Keith Laarveld, as he is consoled by his mother Kathy Laarveld before a 2007 news conference in Chicago regarding sex abuse by a priest. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune / May 29, 2007)|
In the 11 years since Kathy Laarveld learned her son had been molested by their parish priest, she has wanted the Catholic Church to come clean and disclose how it ultimately handled the allegations against its clergy.
She didn't waver in her position seven years ago, when the Chicago Archdiocese reached a monetary settlement with her son. She also didn't relent when it substantiated allegations that the priest molested him in the early 1980s, when he was an 8-year-old having his Communion party.
“There are so many people who think the church did nothing wrong or that they did the best they could at the time,” she said. “I don't believe that. I want people to see exactly what happened and how these priests were protected.”
Laarveld's wish soon will be granted. In a letter to parishioners of the Chicago Archdiocese, Cardinal Francis George announced this week that documents on substantiated abuse claims linked to at least 30 current and former archdiocese priests will soon be made public. He apologized to the victims for the abuse they suffered, as well as to “rank-and-file Catholics who have been shamed” by the scandal.
Those files will be turned over to a prominent plaintiff's attorney next week as part of an agreement dating to 2005 and could be made public as soon as month's end.
Most of them pertain to decades-old incidents, all of which were reported to civil authorities and resulted in settlements between the church and the accusers, George said. His letter to parishioners was posted online this week and is expected to appear in parish bulletins this weekend.
The disclosure will provide the broadest look yet at how the country's third-largest archdiocese handled abuse claims in recent decades, in addition to offering detailed accounts of the pain endured by dozens of victims. While many advocates welcome the long-sought documents, others worry they will reopen old wounds for a church that has been trying to move past an international scandal.
“Almost all of the incidents happened decades ago, perpetrated by priests whom neither I nor many younger clergy have ever met or talked to,” George writes.
“Nevertheless, the publication puts the actions of these men and the Archdiocese itself in the spotlight. Painful though publicly reviewing the past can be, it is part of the accountability and transparency to which the Archdiocese is committed. … Publishing for all to read the actual records of these crimes raises transparency to a new level.”
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented dozens of abuse victims nationwide, said the archdiocese has, for the most part, cooperated in the documents' release. But the real credit belongs to the more than 40 survivors who have pushed for the release since 2005, when disclosure became part of all subsequent settlement agreements, he said.
“It's … disappointing and sad that he does not give credit to the courageous survivors … with whom we have been working so hard for so long to litigate and negotiate, to extract and extrude these long-held secret files,” Anderson said. “They're deserving of credit for the courage in demanding it and pressing it.”
The documents will be released to Anderson's office next week, and staff will cull, collate and post them online for the public. Contrary to the cardinal's letter, that will not be done until a later date, Anderson said.
Anderson said it took nine years to review reams of files and negotiate the terms of their release. Accused priests argued against the release — and in some cases succeeded in keeping documents from becoming public, said attorney Joseph Roddy, who represented the clergymen's interest in the negotiations.
Because the archdiocese's administrative proceedings don't require the standard of proof used in the American justice system, many of the priests resent having their personnel records released without having the allegations tried in a court of law, Roddy said. The statute of limitations had expired on most of the allegations, precluding criminal charges.
“The files are filled with one-sided allegations,” Roddy said. “It doesn't tell the whole story.”
At least one-third of the priests named in the files are dead, Roddy said. None of the living clergy is in active ministry, he said, though not all of them have been defrocked.
“There's nothing new in the files,” he said. “This story already has been told all over the world. I think people are going to see that the archdiocese acted in a very proactive manner — perhaps too proactive in my view as lawyer who believes in due process.”
The records will include complaints, reports from internal investigations and actions taken by the archdiocese against 30 out of more than 65 priests with substantiated allegations against them. Three of the priests whose records will be released are not listed on the archdiocese's website because allegations surfaced after their death. Anderson represented the accusers in cases against the 30 priests.
“We're working on how to replicate that process for the rest of those,” John O'Malley, an attorney for the archdiocese, said about records for the other priests.
O'Malley said 95 percent of the incidents occurred before 1988 and none occurred after 1996. The files of former priest and convicted sex offender Daniel McCormack are not included in the records because a judge has sealed them for upcoming trials, O'Malley said.
In a similar disclosure last year, the Joliet Diocese released the personnel files of 16 of the 34 priests with substantiated allegations against them. The files, which were made public as part of a settlement in a civil case, contained more than 7,000 records detailing how the diocese shielded priests, misled parishioners and left children unprotected for more than a half-century. They also raised new questions about whether the church had been forthcoming about the number of local priests involved in the scandal and its commitment to reforms.
In the Chicago Archdiocese, victims spent nine years pushing the church in the hope of giving the public that same broad perspective. For many, the transparency was even more important than the money, lawyers said.
“They're looking for accountability,” said attorney Marc Pearlman, who worked with Anderson to have files released. “They want something to be learned from this, and they want to make sure it can't happen again.”
Laarveld's son Keith and the archdiocese settled his case involving former priest Vincent McCaffrey in 2007, but Keith Laarveld continued fighting for the documents' release. The legal battle was emotionally draining, but the family believed transparency was more valuable than money.
“It was an excruciating process,” Kathy Laarveld said. “But I'm hoping people learn from these mistakes. Maybe the files will give some young boy or young girl the courage to speak up about their own abuse.”
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