Cardinal Francis George says disclosure of 15,000 pages, which detail how church handled victims and accused priests, is part of effort to ‘rebuild trust’
Thursday 6 November 2014 15.42 ES
The archdiocese of Chicago released about 15,000 pages of previously secret files online Thursday in an attempt to provide fuller transparency related to sexual abuse cases by clergy going back several decades.
The documents detail interpersonal communications between victims, the priests and top ranking archdiocese officials. Combined with a first set of files released in January, they represent the most complete picture to date of how the archdiocese handled reports of sexual abuse of minors by 66 of its priests since 1952.
“We are committed to transparency with the people we serve. We cannot change the past but we hope we can rebuild trust through honest and open dialogue. Child abuse is a crime and a sin,” said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who added the archdiocese is “concerned first and foremost with bringing healing to abuse victims”.
The new documents involve 36 priests, all but 14 of whom are still living and removed from the priesthood. Ninety-two percent of the abuse detailed took place prior to 1988. Half the incidents took place before 1978. The archdiocese says it is aware of 352 incidents of known abuse since 1952.
The documents released in January were made public as part of a settlement agreement with victims. Cardinal George announced then that for the full sake of transparency, he wanted all remaining documents released voluntarily by the end of the year.
Because the statute of limitations has run out for the majority of these incidents, most of the priests who are alive are protected from criminal prosecution. The church however has paid about $130m to settle victim claims using money raised primarily by selling church land. Most of the cases came to light after 2000, as media reports brought national attention on clergy abuse, leading to increased oversight within the church. The Chicago archdiocese points out that it had already developed a system for handling sexual abuse allegations a decade prior.
Eugene Hollander, an attorney who has represented many Chicago victims, says that many of his clients settled their cases via mediation and never made it to court. Victims are often hesitant to go to trial, he says, because they often hold their experiences secret for most of their lives, in many cases not even telling loved ones.
“They feel guilty, they feel ashamed. A lot of the times I was the first person they told,” he says. “That’s why you don’t see a lot of civil cases.”
The files released Thursday do not include information on defrocked priest Daniel McCormack, who was sentenced to five years in prison for charges of criminal sexual abuse in 2007, because they were court-ordered to remain under seal due to ongoing litigation. McCormack was arrested this year on new charges related to abuse from the last decade.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an advocacy group, says the document release this year represents “a tiny first step” for the archdiocese in addressing past abuse claims. She wants photos of the defrocked priests posted online and at the churches where they served. She also wants the priests who are still alive removed from their current residences and taken to remote treatment facilities, where they can be professionally monitored.
She says the document release “shows that literally tens of thousands of children were put at risk and left at risk because of reckless Catholic bishops, priests, nuns, lay employees, deacons and seminarians. Their concern for protecting reputations rather than the innocence of children left so many children needlessly at risk.”
The church says it reports all incidents of sexual abuse to law enforcement and an independent review board exists to examine all findings of investigations. A US-wide charter established in 2002 requires any priest with even one substantiated allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor against them to be removed from the priesthood.