Church releasing sex abuse files on Chicago clergy

January 15, 2014

The Associated Press and Lynette Kalsnes

Bishop Francis Kane, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Chicago, responds to a question about the release of 6,000 pages of documents detailing what it knew about decades of clergy sex abuse allegations and how it handled them during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, in Chicago.

UPDATED 8 p.m.

The Archdiocese of Chicago Wednesday released about 6,000 pages of documents detailing what it knows about decades of clergy sex abuse allegations and how it handled them, calling it an effort to "bring healing to the victims and their families."

Victims' attorneys, who have fought for years to hold the Catholic Church accountable for concealing crimes and sometimes reassigning priests to positions where they continued to molest children, said they got the documents Wednesday and plan to make them public next week.

The nation's third-largest archdiocese agreed to release complaints, personnel documents and other files for about 30 priests with substantiated abuse allegations as part of settlements with  victims.

“I think that the files will show a systemic plan over decades in this diocese, along with many other dioceses, to conceal sexual abuse, to conceal who the predators were, and to put the interests of the predators and the institution above the interests of innocent young children,” said attorney Marc Pearlman, who has helped represent about 200 victims of clergy abuse in the Chicago area.

“Until there is public disclosure and transparency ... there is no way people can learn about it and make sure it does not happen again," Pearlman said.

Bishop Francis Kane, who oversees pastoral care at the archdiocese, began a news conference by apologizing for the abuse. He said church officials at first failed to recognize that child sex abuse was a serious crime.

But the bishop said there were no cover-ups, even in cases where accused priests may have been reassigned.

"It was just they didn't realize that it was such a terrible thing, and so I think they did relocate people, but it was not intended as a way of covering up things," he said.

He acknowledged the archdiocese made other “terrible mistakes.” He said they sent abusive priests off for evaluation and treatment, and then put them back into ministry after they got back reports saying it was safe to do so, something they wouldn’t do now.

“We’ve also found out that we have to be so sensitive to the victims,” Bishop Kane said. “They’ve endured some great pain. And so it’s important for us to be sensitive and try to help them in ways that will bring healing …That’s one of the great mistakes that I think we made, we didn’t realize the depth of this terrible, terrible sin and crime of child sex abuse.”

Archdiocese attorney John O'Malley warned that the documents will be "upsetting."

"The information is painful; it's difficult to read," said O'Malley, adding he himself was “humbled” by the issue.

The documents are expected to be similar to recent disclosures by other dioceses in the U.S. that showed how the church shielded priests and failed to report child sex abuse to authorities. Chicago church officials said 95 percent of the abuse in these cases occurred before 1988 and none occurred after 1996. They said nearly half of the priests involved are dead.

The documents will include only 30 of 65 priests against whom the archdiocese says it has credible allegations of abuse. That is because settlements that required the disclosures involved just those 30 priests, attorney Marc Pearlman said.

The release of files also won’t include those against Father Daniel McCormack, who was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to abusing five children while he was a parish priest and a teacher at a Catholic school. Those files have been sealed by a judge because of pending court cases, Pearlman said. But he and St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeff Anderson will re-release the McCormack files they have.

The documents also won’t include information about credibly accused priests who are part of religious orders, even though they may have worked in institutions associated with the archdiocese.

Attorney O’Malley said the archdiocese will review and develop a process to release documents on archdiocesan priests. He said they can’t release information about priests from religious orders because those priests aren’t in their jurisdiction.

Victims and their lawyers said publicizing the documents will help victims and the Catholic Church heal and move forward, but they also criticized the archdiocese, saying officials aren’t being transparent enough.

Joe Iacono hopes records related to the priest who abused him more than 50 years ago are among those released.

"For me, it's going to empower me again, ... and hopefully it will help others out there struggling to come forward and get help," said Iacono, 62, a Springfield resident who was abused in the early 1960s while he was a student at a Catholic school in Northlake, Ill., west of Chicago.

He said Father Thomas Kelly, who is dead but whom the church has acknowledged abused children, took an active interest in a group of boys, lifting weights with them and inviting them to spend the night at the rectory.

"It was his way of weeding us out and separating us from the rest of the class and making us feel special (so he could) take liberties with us," said Iacono, who said he tried to forget about the abuse until his daughter was born years later.

David Rudofski is hoping the victims will find the same healing he did, after he helped win the release of similar documents from the Joliet Diocese. Rudofski was allegedly abused by a priest when he was a child, during his First Confession.

“The more that’s out there, the better off everybody will be in the end, the safer children will be and the healing process for many can really start,” Rudofski said.

He sharply disagreed with archdiocesan officials, who Wednesday asked people to view the incidents and the church’s handling of them through the filter of a previous era, when much of the abuse happened.

“How is that the standard of the time? Abuse is abuse no matter what decade it is. It’s wrong and it always has been wrong,” Rudofski said.

Cardinal Francis George, who has led the archdiocese since 1997, did not attend the news conference. But on Sunday he released a letter of apology to parishioners that said all of these incidents were reported to civil authorities and resulted in settlements.

In fact, the archdiocese has paid about $100 million to settle sex abuse claims, documents that they have. Officials said the money has come from the sale of land and a bond issue, not donations.