Thousands of pages of secret church documents released Tuesday as part of a court settlement provide an unprecedented and gut-wrenching look at how the Archdiocese of Chicago for years failed to protect children from abusive priests.
The documents provide new details and insights into how the nation's third-largest archdiocese quietly shuttled accused priests from parish to parish and failed to notify police of child abuse allegations. The paper trail, going back decades, also portrays painfully slow progress toward reform, accountability and openness.
Most of the 30 clergymen tied to the documents were not prosecuted. They were shielded by Roman Catholic Church officials who thought the men could be cured with counseling, by bishops blinded by a belief in second chances and forgiveness, and by leaders concerned a public scandal would damage the church's image.
“That's in the past, we're hoping,” Cardinal Francis George said in an interview this week.
While most of the incidents did happen in the past and spurred reforms, many of the allegations surfaced during George's tenure. He already has admitted to mishandling the incident that did happen under his watch — the case of convicted child molester Daniel McCormack. McCormack was arrested in August 2005 after a 10-year-old boy claimed the priest had fondled him. Police said the boy's story was credible but released McCormack after getting a call from an official of the archdiocese.
Documents from the McCormack case are not part of the public release, having been sealed by a judge for pending litigation.
But a case that arose just days after the high-profile January 2006 arrest of McCormack does appear in the trove of documents, illustrating how George still struggled to grasp the severity of sex abuse allegations.
The internal archdiocese files chronicle how George and those under his leadership mishandled the case of the Rev. Joseph R. Bennett, a priest accused of molesting two sisters between 1967 and 1973 at St. John de la Salle in Chicago. About a dozen more allegations have surfaced since, according to the documents.
Therese Albrecht, the first of the two girls, came forward in late 2003. Her older sister, Susan, now 56, of Midlothian, said they didn't tell each other until they were adults.
“At the time, my father was very ill, and Bennett would tell me if I told anyone, he'd snap his fingers and my dad would be dead before I got home,” Susan Albrecht said.
After a two-year internal church review, George kept Bennett under the supervision of a monitor, the Rev. Leonard Dubi, according to the files. But the cardinal's own hand-picked review board warned him in 2003 and again in 2005 that Dubi might not be the best monitor for Bennett as the two were close friends. In fact, the two clergymen had vacationed together in Cancun, Mexico, earlier that year, according to a Feb. 9, 2003, vacation notice in his file.
Still, George disagreed, discounted the board's recommendations and continued to let Dubi serve as Bennett's monitor. George initially agreed with his board's October 2005 conclusion that Bennett be “immediately removed.” But documents reveal the cardinal soon had second thoughts.
“I realize this creates a rather awkward situation, but I believe I need to reflect on this matter further,” George wrote in a Nov. 7, 2005, letter. Days after McCormack's arrest, George removed Bennett from ministry.
The cache of documents includes several letters from Holy Ghost parishioners to the cardinal expressing support for Bennett after his removal. In a July 14, 2006, response, George made a curious suggestion to one concerned parishioner.
“Of course, I hope Fr. Bennett is innocent — who would not? Rather than with me, I suggest you talk to his accusers.”
The McCormack and Bennett cases did spark some archdiocese reforms, including the use of outside auditors and better reporting to police and child welfare officials.
Bennett, now 73, has never been charged with a crime. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in church documents. He never returned to active ministry after 2006 but was never defrocked.
Bennett, who resigned in summer 2012, could not be reached for comment.
Patrick Reardon, Bennett's lawyer at the time, said the priest maintained his innocence. “These are damaged souls — all around,” said Reardon, now a Cook County public defender. “The victims. The accusers. The accused. The ones who did it. The ones who didn't.”
George has found himself also repeatedly apologizing for the conduct of his predecessors. One victim wrote to the cardinal about two abusive priests from the 1970s and 1980s who, records show, had an arrangement to share boys. The victim wanted to know how the church could protect these men.
George wrote back that the church failed the children.
“We have tried to apologize to all those who are suffering,” he wrote, “because of the failure on the part of some bishops to supervise priests adequately.”
The documents account for 30 of more than 65 priests in the archdiocese with substantiated child abuse allegations against them.
Of the 30 priests, 14 have died, all but one are no longer priests and none is in active ministry. An archdiocesan lawyer said last week that 95 percent of the incidents detailed in the documents occurred before 1988 and none occurred after 1996.
The archdiocese has paid more than $100 million to victims in the last 25 years, an expense covered by land sales and a recent bond issue.
“The Archdiocese acknowledges that its leaders made some decisions decades ago that are now difficult to justify,” the church said in a statement Tuesday. “The Church and its leaders have acknowledged repeatedly that they wished they had done more and done it sooner, but now are working hard to regain trust, to reach out to victims and their families, and to make certain that all children and youth are protected.”
The collection of files provides fresh context to the tenure of George's predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Even Bernardin, long regarded as a leader in tackling child sex abuse in the church, gave abusive priests breaks.
For instance, he appointed the Rev. Joseph Fitzharris to a new parish assignment in 1988, just months after a judge sentenced Fitzharris to one-year court supervision for sexually abusing a 15-year-old, according to records. As part of his sentence, Fitzharris was to have no unsupervised contact with children.
In 1991, Bernardin reviewed all the abuse cases in the archdiocese, removed Fitzharris and dozens of other priests from ministry, and instituted reforms that became a model for dioceses across the nation.
But the files reveal he still struggled to balance his faith in a priest with trying to protect children.
Bernardin agreed with his review board in 1994 that the Rev. John Curran should never be allowed to return to active ministry in the aftermath of four separate allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. But the cardinal cautioned his review board to use a less punitive tone in dealing with the accused priest.
The cardinal in July 1995 urged him not to resign from the priesthood after the depressed Curran said he'd rather do so than follow through with the church's wishes to go to a St. Louis psychiatric facility.
“You have been an outstanding priest of this archdiocese for 38 years,” Bernardin said. “I cannot even imagine you as anything but a priest.”
By then, at least six accusers had lodged complaints of child abuse.
Bernardin's orders allowed Curran to live in the rectory of a Homewood parish with an elementary school between 1996 and 1997, under monitoring, arguing it “provides the kind of atmosphere that Fr. Curran needs to rediscover his own humanity and recover his health.”
The archdiocese also misled parishioners at St. Christina in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood when it removed Curran, saying he was on sabbatical. The truth came out nearly two years later.
Curran died in 2000. His file references as many as 18 different complaints of child abuse that surfaced over two decades.
He was never criminally charged.
The files also show that Cardinal John Cody, Chicago's archbishop from 1965 until his death in 1982, might have protected priests.
A girl wrote to church authorities in 1970 and told of her concerns about Father Raymond Skriba, and said that he had her and two other girls at “his disposal.” The girl said the priest French-kissed her and fondled her and that other girls had similar stories.
“Father Ray Skriba needs help. And things are not getting better,” she wrote. “P.S. Hurry!!!!!”
When asked about the accusations, Skriba said he had done nothing wrong. “My mother told me that I was naive about women,” Skriba said, according to church documents. “I deny any serious, deliberate attempt to sin with anyone.”
Skriba didn't need to worry. He had an ally in Cardinal Cody.
“I feel that this whole matter should be forgotten by you as it has been forgotten by me,” Cody wrote to Skriba in a July 1970 letter. “No good can come of trying to prove or disprove the allegations, and I think that you will understand this.”
Skriba was reassigned to another parish. He was at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Round Lake when he was removed during the priest sex abuse scandal that erupted in the early 2000s. Others came forward at the time and told the archdiocese that Skriba abused them when they were children, including one woman who said she was 15 when Skriba molested her at St. Joseph's.
According to the archdiocese, Skriba died earlier this month.
Cody also appeared to enable the Rev. Thomas Kelly, a priest named in a 2005 settlement but never identified publicly by the archdiocese. Church officials point to a policy of not identifying priests who are accused of abuse after their death. But the church had known Kelly had issues in the 1960s.
In October 1967, Cody requested a meeting with the priest “about the allegations made against you” at St. John Vianney Church in Northlake. On that same day, Cody asked the chancellor, Monsignor Francis Byrne: “What are you planning to do about this Father Kelly.”
The decision was made to move him to St. Catherine of Genoa Church.
In a handwritten note in February 1968, Kelly wrote to both Cody and Byrne.
“I am very happy that many people have been calling from Northlake to tell me what's going on, etc. So, it does not seem that there has been any public scandal, for which I thank God daily.”
Nine months later, Kelly wrote to Cody again, apologizing for more indiscretions.
“If you would consider giving me one last chance to prove that I can be a good priest, I know that I can do it. You very aptly compared the situation to alcoholism.”
When the archdiocese approached the Rev. William Cloutier in June 1979 with allegations that he sexually assaulted boys, he responded, “Oh my God, my priesthood is finished.”
But his life as a priest was far from over.
It took several repeated offenses and Bernardin's reforms in 1991 to remove him from ministry. Cloutier resigned from the priesthood in 1993 after new allegations surfaced that, in the late 1970s, he molested two 13-year-old boys, pulled out a handgun and threatened to kill them if they told anyone.
In 2002, a man who claimed Cloutier had abused him as a child tracked down the former priest on the Internet and chatted with him through email. In those emails, Cloutier admitted to abusing boys and said that he, himself, had been abused by a Chicago priest when he was a child during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“I realize that what I thought was a calling to the priesthood was nothing more than a reaction to the abuse I received,” Cloutier wrote in one email. “I will do whatever I can to help other victims to find peace. I was part of an evil system.”
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