DCFS opens 2 dozen new cases into possible Chicago clergy sexual abuse

By Elyssa Cherney
Chicago Tribune
September 18, 2019

Acting on concerns that more than 1,000 reports of possible sexual abuse by Catholic clergy may not have been properly reviewed by DCFS, the child welfare agency has opened 24 new investigations into alleged priest misconduct and hired a law firm to probe why the cases weren’t immediately addressed.

The reports were received by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services under a 2006 agreement with the Archdiocese of Chicago, requiring the church to notify DCFS every time it became aware of an abuse allegation, even if the accuser was no longer a minor. The measure went beyond state law, which does not require such cases to be reported to the agency because they don’t involve an underage victim.

DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith, who was appointed to lead the agency in March, said he was not aware of the policy or the existence of the reports until recently. Smith did not elaborate on how the problem came to his attention, but a DCFS spokesman later clarified that the protocol was discovered while looking into a specific case involving clergy abuse.

The 24 new DCFS investigations involve adults who came forward years after the alleged abuse occurred. In those cases, the department is working to determine whether the accused might still have access to children, through the church or in another setting.

Thompson Hine, a Cleveland-based law firm with Chicago offices, was hired to assess DCFS’ protocol for handling the archdiocese notifications, Smith said. A team of attorneys will be conducting the review under a contract that is capped at $225,000, according to the department.

In all, DCFS located 1,100 reports that it had received from the archdiocese since 2006. While DCFS staff went through the reports and flagged the 24 as needing further investigation, Smith said he had unanswered questions about whether the department properly reviewed all the notifications.

“At this point, it’s not clear exactly what happened with each of the 1,100 cases,” Smith said. “We’ve asked somebody to come in and do an evaluation to help us get a better picture of exactly what happened. We know that it’s best for us to take our time in these kind of scenarios to review exactly what happened.”

The agreement involved the archdiocese only — not the state’s five other dioceses in Joliet, Rockford, Peoria, Belleville and Springfield. It stems from fallout in the case of defrocked Chicago priest Daniel McCormack, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to sexually abusing five boys and last year was indefinitely committed to a state facility for sex offenders. When the allegations against McCormack first came to light, poor communication between DCFS and the archdiocese allowed McCormack to remain working in a school for five months after he was first accused.

John O’Malley, former director of legal services for the Archdiocese of Chicago who continues to work with the church, said Tuesday the policy with DCFS is voluntary, prompted by the McCormack case and a desire to be as transparent as possible. The archdiocese has sent DCFS notifications about adult accusers, first by letter and then by email, since the agreement went into effect. Additionally, O’Malley said, the archdiocese sends all allegations to prosecutors in Cook and Lake counties, or refers cases to the jurisdiction where they occurred. He said the archdiocese was not aware of any problems with the notifications until contacted about it by DCFS several weeks ago.

“We’ve got to be very careful that what we do voluntarily — because we want to do it and for the right reasons — doesn’t become some element of negative judgment because this process didn’t work maybe as well as it could have, that it’s some failing on our part," O’Malley said.

In the early days of the agreement, the archdiocese was in close communication with DCFS, including twice-yearly in-person meetings, but those stopped in 2016, said archdiocese spokeswoman Paula Waters. She said archdiocese attorneys attempted to set up additional meetings but had trouble securing dates with DCFS.

The protocol also included other measures. Per the policy, DCFS was supposed to notify the archdiocese within 48 hours of closing an investigation into archdiocese clergy or staff and both parties were supposed to review the protocol on an annual basis.

Bryan Samuels, executive director of the child welfare think tank Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, said he designed the protocol in 2006 when he led DCFS. The protocol was created to ensure that cases of possible abuse reported by adult victims would be investigated, even though the criminal statute of limitations may have expired and a report to DCFS wasn’t legally mandated.

State law requires specific individuals, including clergy and employees of the archdiocese, to call the DCFS child abuse hotline if they suspect a child is being mistreated. Typically, DCFS will open an investigation only if a victim is younger than 18.

Samuels, who later also served in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, said the protocol was supposed to ensure that certain allegations would not fall through the cracks. While he was at DCFS, the notifications were reviewed by a special team that met on an ad-hoc basis to determine whether the reports needed further investigation.

Samuels signed the agreement with the archdiocese on Feb. 22, 2006, and left the department at the end of that year. He said he believes that administrators with knowledge of the policy continued to carry it out after his departure but does not know what has happened more recently.

“While it is unfortunate that the policy wasn’t continued to be monitored and implemented, I have to admit it’s not surprising," Samuels said. "The department has gone through a whole host of leadership changes since I left the department, and it would have been difficult for all of these new administrations to pay attention to every policy or agreement the department had reached.”

Amid budget cuts, staff turnover and controversial abuse cases, DCFS has struggled to maintain consistent leadership. Smith is the 15th person to lead the child welfare agency since 2003, a number that includes acting and interim directors.

Smith said that he acted immediately after learning about the archdiocese reports. He said he assigned hotline workers and other staff to comb through the reports, some of which had specific information while others only referred to anonymous victims or priests. In cases that met the department’s criteria for follow-up, an inquiry was opened to determine if an accused priest might still have access to children. Investigations were not opened in cases that referred to deceased clergy because there was no potential further risk to children.

Individuals the department found to have abused or neglected children are placed on an internal registry as required by law, which could be used to notify prospective future employers.

“I think that it’s critical, in my new role as acting director, to make sure that we do things properly moving forward and that we take our energy to ensure that we learn from mistakes, but we make decisions in the present,” Smith said. “We saw an opportunity to improve our service delivery and evaluate the challenges we had in the past and build on them for our best work.”



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