Newly released documents offer the most sweeping look yet at how the Archdiocese of Chicago has handled cases of sexual abuse by priests. Attorneys and victims contend they provide clear evidence of a cover-up that started in the 1950s and continues today.
Victims’ attorneys put 6,000 pages online Tuesday. They detail alleged abuse by 30 priests against about 50 victims.
Kathy Laarveld’s son was one of those molested by a priest. For years, she was a staunch supporter of her parish. She was the secretary, the cook, even did the laundry for the priests, who were regular dinner guests.
She had no idea that Vincent McCaffrey, one of these priests she trusted, was abusing her son.
“McCaffrey actually took advantage of my son on his First Communion in my home, in front of my family,” Laarveld said.
It was not until her son told her about 10 years ago -- 20 years later -- that she learned the truth. McCaffrey admitted during court hearings to molesting so many children that he lost count. The documents show he offended at every parish where he served, including that of Laarveld and her son.
“I can’t forgive myself, I’m his mother. I would have jumped in front of a bus or a train before I would ever have let anybody touch him,” she said.
Laarveld and her husband, Jim, are among survivors of priest sex abuse and their families who worked to get these papers released. Their attorneys say they refused to settle their cases unless the files went public.
The 30 priests described in the documents are about half the number the Archdiocese lists as credibly accused.
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who represented victims in these cases, spell out the accusation of a cover-up. He said, “Priests were offending children, and they made intentional and conscious choices to conceal that, protect the priests, protect the reputation of the Archdiocese, and in effect conceal the crime and give safe harbor to the offender.”
The documents show that offending priests moved in and out of treatment and from parish to parish, over and over, without the old parish or new one knowing what had happened.
They show monitoring failed repeatedly. Priests and nuns who were selected to keep abusive priests from re-offending told the highest church officials they were not clear what their jobs were. They told officials the priests were breaking restrictions and hanging around kids again. And often, the records show, nothing was done.
“It shows a pattern of repeated abuse, repeated allegations, the Archdiocese working hard to keep that all bottled up in secret and then transferring these gentleman from one parish to another so they can abuse again,” said Chicago Marc Pearlman, who has represented nearly 100 victims along with Anderson.
“What is striking to me is every file is very similar,” Pearlman added. “Each file tells the same story. The only difference is the perpetrator’s name and the victims’ names.”
Consider the case of Daniel Holihan. In 1986, a mom wrote to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to tell him that the kids called Holihan “Father Happy Hands.”
Holihan was reportedly touching and fondling many boys and bringing them to his cottage. When the police showed an abuse-prevention movie on “good touch, bad touch,” a bunch of boys told their teacher it had happened to them.
The State’s Attorney’s Office found at least 12 cases with credible evidence, but did not charge Holihan. A letter thanks the office for its efforts to “minimize the negative impact on the parish.”
The documents show the Archdiocese moved Holihan to senior ministry, but let him serve in a parish on weekends for a number of years.
The Archdiocese has apologized for its handling of cases such as this. In a statement, it acknowledged that leaders “made some decisions decades ago that are now difficult to justify.”
“The pain and the suffering of victims and their families is just something that continues to haunt me, and I think it is also a terrible thing for the church,” said Bishop Francis Kane, who oversees pastoral care for the Archdiocese.
But Kane denied there was an orchestrated cover-up. “I don’t believe there was ever an intention to hide what has happened,” he said. “What happened, I believe, is we’ve had a change in understanding. Forty years ago when many of these incidents took place, we treated sex abuse in a very different way.”
The Archdiocese points out that nearly all these cases happened before 1988. None of the 30 priests remain in active ministry. Half are dead.
The attorneys for the victims do acknowledge some things are better, including a program to help victims and training to recognize abusers.
But they say they see signs of similar patterns still occurring.
In the past decade, Father Joseph Bennett was accused of multiple allegations, including penetrating a girl’s rectum with the handle of a communion server. In a letter to the Gary (Ind.) Diocese, asking for help monitoring Bennett, the Archdiocese said it only knew of one allegation.
Attorney Jeff Anderson points out review board reporting to Cardinal Francis George -- Bernadin’s successor -- recommended Bennett’s removal from priesthood.
“Cardinal George, instead of following that recommendation, took the Bennett file and made his own determination, notwithstanding the fact one of the witnesses in that file described Bennett’s scrotum,” Anderson said.
The Cardinal said in documents that he interceded to make sure Bennett -- who, like many of the priests, has maintained his innocence -- had a canon lawyer.
Here’s an excerpt from a letter the Cardinal wrote to a Bennett supporter:
It is this kind of response that angers Kathy and Jim Laarveld. They say their family has paid a high cost for priest sexual abuse, and how the Archdiocese handled it.
Jim no longer goes to Mass. Kathy tries, but she sometimes starts to sob when she begins to walk into church.
She says their son, as a boy, was carefree, a firecracker. Now he is a compassionate man who has struggled because of the abuse.
“I look at him and I see the day he was born, all the hope, all the love, the sparkle in his eye, and his face,” Kathy said. “He’s a very playful individual, but he’ll catch himself, and I say, ‘Go for it. Be that little boy you could never be. You always had that over your head.’”
Her husband, Jim, plans to look at the documents. Their parish had two abusive priests at the same time.
“It’s going to hurt, although we know a lot of what’s in there, I’m sure there’s stuff we don’t know,” he said. “It’s going to hurt my son. Hopefully we can be with him when he looks at it, because I don’t want him to be alone.”
Kathy Laarveld expects that pain will be short-lived. She thinks seeing the documents -- and the acknowledgement this all happened -- will help her son, and her entire family, to heal.
And she hopes it brings healing to others as well.