Sex abuse lurks behind Catholic election | WBEZ
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Sex abuse lurks behind Catholic election

This story was updated with a clarification on Nov. 12, 2010. *

The nation’s Catholic bishops will choose a new leader next month. Both their outgoing president and the bishop likely to take his place have strong ties to the Chicago archdiocese. That’s not all they have in common. Both clerics advanced the career of a priest who molested as many as 23 boys. They did so even though top archdiocese officials had received allegations about misconduct by the priest. If the election goes as expected, it’ll provide ammunition to people who argue there’s no accountability for bishops who protect abusers. We report from our West Side bureau.

Daniel McCormack went to prison in 2007 for abusing boys when he was pastor of St. Agatha’s, a parish in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.

To learn more about McCormack, I sit down with a father whose son attended the Catholic school next to the parish. I’m keeping the man’s name to myself to protect his son’s identity.

The father says his boy started acting out around age 11 after joining a basketball team McCormack coached. “You would try to get to the bottom of it but there was no real way to figure out what was going on,” he says.

The father didn’t find out what was going on until recently. His son’s now 20. “He was, like, ‘Dad, there’s something I want to talk to you about,’ ” he says.

McCormack was fondling the boy at basketball practice, the father says.

The abuse didn’t stop there. “He would have the children doing tasks around the building,” the father says. “He’d pay them.”

“There was one incident specifically,” the father continues. “It had started raining. My son was out in the yard, doing some yard work. He had gotten muddy. After getting done with what he was told to do, out in the yard, he went inside. Dan told my son to get out of the clothes: ‘Go and take a shower.’ As my son was getting out of the shower, he would bend him over. He inserted his penis in my son. And this happened more than once.”

The man says McCormack abused his son for more than three years.

The family has now hired an attorney to see if the Chicago archdiocese will agree to a settlement. “I feel really betrayed,” the father says. “We entrusted these people with our child.”

I asked the father if he had ever heard of Gerald Kicanas, now a bishop of Tuscon, Arizona. Kicanas helped get McCormack’s career off the ground in the early 1990s. Kicanas was rector of an archdiocese seminary where McCormack studied.

Here’s what happened: Kicanas received reports about three McCormack sexual-misconduct cases, one involving a minor. But Kicanas still approved McCormack for ordination.

“How do you do these things in the name of God?” the father asks.

I tell him how the Chicago archdiocese assigned McCormack to various parishes. The priest attracted more accusations, but Cardinal Francis George promoted him in 2005 to help oversee other West Side churches.

Around that time, Chicago police arrested McCormack on suspicion of child molestation but released him without charges. Cardinal George kept McCormack in his posts even after the archdiocese sexual-abuse review board urged his removal.

The North Lawndale father can’t believe this. “How is it that you’re notified that someone in your parish is doing something to children and these people are still getting higher appointments?” he asks.

It wasn’t until McCormack’s second arrest—more than four months after the first—that George finally yanked him. The delay outraged victim advocates.

But George’s peers still elected him president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007. And who did the bishops elect as vice president? Kicanas, the man who approved McCormack’s ordination in the first place.

“They’ve looked the other way,” says Thomas Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who helped write a 1985 report about clergy sexual abuse. He later split from church leaders, saying they weren’t following his recommendations.

Doyle says bishops kept handling abusers the way Kicanas and George handled McCormack: “They’ve maintained secrecy. They’ve secretly transferred the priests. So they have aided and abetted the commission of crimes. But there has been no instance where the pope has called any bishop accountable.”

Now U.S. bishops are getting ready to elect a president to succeed George. If they stick with tradition, they’ll elevate the vice president—Bishop Kicanas, the former rector of the seminary McCormack attended.

I left several messages for Kicanas about the election but he didn’t get back. I called the Chicago archdiocese to speak with Cardinal George or a spokesperson. His staff referred me to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A spokeswoman there said child sexual abuse is not an election issue and that no one else would be commenting.

So I called up Jeff Field of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a group that often defends how church leaders handle sex-abuse cases. “To deny a bishop a promotion because of what some deem as improper—when what they do is in line with the church—is wrong,” Field says. “It’s ridiculous.”

In other words, bishops shouldn’t face punishment if they followed church policies.

And the church claims it didn’t know that predators keep at it. “Much of the research on sex abusers really began in the ’90s,” says Jan Slattery, head of Chicago archdiocese programs for victims and child safety. “It’s a relatively new body of research.”

Slattery says the way church officials dealt with McCormack used to be routine. “We were very quick to take the word of lawyers and psychologists,” she says. “At one point in time even criminal systems were not putting men in prison for this. They were getting them treatment. But that’s changed.”

Slattery’s right. A church audit found U.S. bishops received fewer clergy sex-abuse accusations in 2009 than in any year since 2004. Most of the alleged incidents happened decades earlier.

But that’s why McCormack stands out. He was abusing the North Lawndale boys just five years ago. And just three years ago, a newspaper quoted Bishop Kicanas saying he was right to allow McCormack’s ordination.

I asked Slattery how she likes the idea of bishops electing leaders who advanced McCormack’s career. She didn’t respond.

Is Slattery aware of any discipline for McCormack’s supervisors? “I’m not going to be privileged to that if that happened,” she answers.

There are people taking a big-picture look at the Catholic sexual-abuse crisis and whether the church should reconsider leadership. “Celibacy is part of a complex culture that gives priests a sense of deference and entitlement and elitism that can lead to perverse behavior, apparently,” says Thomas Groome, a Boston College theologian.

Groome says making bishops accountable would require changing how the church is governed: “There are ways available, even within canon law. The canon law of the Catholic Church calls for parish councils, diocesan councils—priests and lay people having voice and representation. We’ve never implemented that.”

“Some of it will be reform and some of it will be renewal,” Groome adds. “For example, when you go back into the history of the church, you find that the priests of a diocese had a real voice in choosing their bishop. And, if you go back far enough, in certain places even the people had a real voice in choosing their bishop.”

But, for now, the faithful don’t have that voice. And only the bishops can vote in next month’s election.

So, barring the unforeseen, their next president—like the one stepping down—will have ties to the man who abused the North Lawndale boys.

* An earlier version of this story said Cardinal Francis George advanced Daniel McCormack’s career “despite receiving allegations” about the priest’s misconduct. The basis for our account was a 2008 deposition in which the cardinal answered questions under oath about McCormack’s 2005 arrest and George’s promotion of the priest to head a deanery. In the deposition, George said he learned of the arrest “at the end of August” of 2005. McCormack’s promotion didn't take effect until Sept. 1, 2005.

The Chicago archdiocese says George misspoke during that sworn testimony. A church-commissioned report says the cardinal didn’t learn of McCormack's arrest until Sept. 2, 2005—one day after McCormack's start date as dean.

The archdiocese says it’s significant that George approved the promotion Aug. 29, one day prior to the arrest. “I absolutely deny appointing Dan McCormack as dean after learning of the arrest,” the cardinal says in a written statement from his spokeswoman.

Accordingly, we’ve removed these lines: “Both clerics advanced the career of a priest who molested as many as 23 boys. They did so despite receiving allegations about his misconduct."

We replaced them with: "Both clerics advanced the career of a priest who molested as many as 23 boys. They did so even though top archdiocese officials had received allegations about misconduct by the priest.

As our story notes, however, once George learned of McCormack’s August 2005 arrest, the cardinal left the priest in his posts, including the deanery position. The cardinal did so even after his sexual-abuse review board urged McCormack’s removal in October 2005. McCormack continued abusing boys. Police finally put an end to it in January 2006, when they arrested him a second time.

George insists other archdiocese officials failed to inform him about sexual-misconduct allegations against McCormack over the years. But the cardinal allowed those officials to continue on in their church careers.

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