Saturday, January 28, 2006

Sorry, Your Eminence: Justice Burke is Right.

Issue Turns on Children vs. Priests’ Civil Liberties Rights. But There Was Another Solution. Interestingly, Priests Fail to Rally Around Prelate Who Backs Their “Innocence Until Proven Guilty” Status Despite His Willingness to Go to the Mat for Them.

At the end of the Mass I attended Friday morning, the celebrant asked for prayers for the Church—and also for priests. I know what he means. Several years ago I wrote a biography of a very distinguished and revered priest, Msgr. Ignatius McDermott who initiated a career of caring for the ignored and unloved of Skid Row and extended it to build an institution on the West Side every bit as serviceable to the poor as the Betty Ford clinic is to the wealthy. It was his bad luck to have a 95-year life that began when priests were held sacrosanct (possibly too much so, in my view) to an era when many were regarded unjustly with suspicion on the street for the sins of a few (also too much generalization)—but an era where too many bishops became clerical bureaucrats and p. r. clients, lacking the steely resolve of bishops past. I regret the pain that comes to good priests who have to fight stereotypes but the real pain as well that comes when children are abused. The other day in Chicago Catholics formed around two eminent contenders: Appellate Justice Anne Burke (wife of the powerful alderman Eddie) and Francis Cardinal George, himself a distinguished theologian and philosopher. I give Round One and the entire controversy thus far to Justice Burke.

At issue is the case of Father Daniel McCormack, pastor of Chicago’s St. Agatha’s church. A white priest, popular with his black congregation on the black South Side, Father McCormack was charged on January 21 with two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse for allegedly molesting two boys at St. Agatha’s. One youth says the priest fondled him two to three times a month from September, 2001 when he was nine to January, 2005. A second boy, now 11, says the priest fondled him on two occasions in December, 2003 when he was eight. In addition, a nun who worked at the now closed Holy Family school says that in 2000, the priest made another attempt on a fourth grade boy; on Wednesday, police interviewed a 16-year-old who claims McCormack abused him in 2005. Finally, the mother of a 17-year-old is saying the priest acted improperly when her son was 13 in a basketball program at St. Agatha’s which prosecutors are investigating.

Last weekend police arrested the 37-year-old pastor and charged him with abusing two boys at the parish (at which he became pastor in 2000) between September, 2001 and January, 2005. The crucial point: Since last August, the archdiocese was aware of allegations from one of the boys but did not remove him from the ministry because police had not found sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime nor had the archdiocese found enough information to conduct its own investigation. Rather than act, the archdiocese told Father McCormack not to be alone with children and assigned another priest at St. Agatha’s to monitor McCormack’s behavior. The archdiocese didn’t remove him until last weekend when he was charged with the two counts of aggravated sexual abuse.

Father McCormack also said Mass at the now vacated Holy Family school from 1997 to 2000. There he allegedly took undue liberties with a boy who wanted to be an altar server. The boy’s mother began to call McCormack and leave messages to which there was no response. The nun followed up and told McCormack the mother would be waiting for him at church the following day to bring up her son’s charge. The next morning the mother came, met with McCormack and then left saying to the nun, “Everything’s fine. Don’t pursue it.” The nun said when McCormack came out, she asked what happened. He looked at the floor, reddened and told her, “I used very poor judgment. I have to go.” The nun called an official at Chicago Catholic schools to report it but was told by an administrator that if the mother isn’t pushing it, let it go. But the nun didn’t; she wrote down her suspicions in a letter which she hand-delivered to the school administrator in late winter or early spring of 2000. The schools said this week that the letter was nowhere to be found.

Archdiocesean Chancellor Jimmy Lago (intriguingly, Jimmy, not James, is the name he was given at christening which makes him different than Jimmy Carter whose baptismal name was James Earl, causing many to wonder why they would name their son Jimmy, but discard this) said that, “Without seeming to dump on Sister, she had an affirmative rersponsibility that she cannot transfer, assign or gift [sic] to anybody else. If she became aware there was abuse, she should have reported it” to civil authorities. “”This was 2000. This was not 1979 when people might have been confused about what their responsibilities are. She had a legal obligation to file an abuse-neglected child report period.”

Father McCormack was the subject of other felony charges for allegedly molesting an 8-year-old Willowbrook boy at St. Agatha’s twice in December, 2003 but prosecutors felt they did not have a sufficient case at the time. Archdiocesan authorities say they first learned of abuse allegations against McCormack last August when the mother of the Willowbrook boy went to the police. They said they did not punish McCormack because they could not determine whether the charges were serious.

When the first boy’s allegations came to light, in August, 2005 the archdiocese requested that the police ask the parents of the accuser (the name of which the archdiocese didn’t know) to come to the archdiocese and give information so the church could begin its own probe. Nothing happened.

Illinois Appellate Justice Anne Burke immediately weighed in on the controversy. She was the acting head of the bishops’ National Review Board which had been set up to recommend procedures for handling abuse charges. She maintained that Francis Cardinal George should have removed McCormack last summer to be consistent with the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the bishops toward clergy sex abuse of children. “He’s [the Cardinal] is the ultimate person in charge here,” she said. “He’s never had the intent, I think, to above by [the zero tolerance policy] other than in words. I’m hoping this is at least a wake-up call.”

Cardinal George has responded directly and flatly to deny that the archdiocese was purportedly derelict on handling the allegations and not removing Father McCormack promptly. A strong civil libertarian who was thought to be leaning toward safeguard of priests’ rights since the original priests’ abuse controversy ignited in Boston several years ago, Cardinal George has strongly defended the way the archdiocese handled allegations concerning the priest. A key sentence in his statement: “Some have said that Fr. McCormack should have been immediately removed from ministry last August on the basis of what remains hearsay, without any sort of process. It seems to me morally wrong to insist that anyone should be punished on the basis of a story that could not be investigated. If this were the practice, no one would be safe.”

To my way of thinking, Justice Burke is absolutely right, notwithstanding that I have not been a fan of hers on other issues which are not germane here. Cardinal George has leaned over way too far to support priests while failing to recognize that steps could have been taken to remove a cleric dangerous to children as investigations continue without scourging him in the public square. Priests are transferred in this archdiocese all the time. McCormack could have been sent to a desk job while the probe went on without any opprobrium. Instead, the archdiocese leaned over backwards to supposedly protect his “civil liberties” when, in fact, none of those liberties would have been endangered had he merely been transferred. Suppose a bank teller was accused of associating with the Outfit. Does the bank keep him on the job while the investigation goes on? Not on your life. He is transferred to inspect the time clock on the big vault until the probe is completed. Where is it written that a priest accused of molestation must continue in his post exactly as heretofore when, without prejudice, he could have been transferred downtown pending the outcome of the investigation?

The problem is that the archdiocese has failed to recognize that the very first concern—one that is paramount above all others—is the well-being of children under its care…not priests, not bureaucrats, not the p.r. image of the church—especially when means are at hand to protect the priests from damaging baseless allegations while exerting first and foremost protection of school children.

The interesting thing here is that Cardinal George came to Chicago under attack by a coterie of liberal priests (including the late rector of Holy Name Cathedral, a liberal populist known as “Little Bob”) who called him “Francis the Corrector” which unjustly blistered him supposedly not being pro-priest, whatever that meant). When Mary Anne Hackett, the president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, a Catholic lay organization (of which I’m chairman) defended him against the slurs, he shrugged off the defense saying he didn’t need it, typical, in the minds of some observers, of a naïf university professor type who didn’t know who his real friends were. Far from not being pro-priest, in this first instance since the clergy abuse scandal broke, the Cardinal—well-intentionedly but to this observer misguidedly—puts more emphasis on protecting priests than their children charges.

Cardinal George has become a leading force for clarification of understanding on theological and philosophical issues in the entire church, witness the strong and almost verifiable rumor that he was asked by Benedict XVI to head the office that Ratzinger led for many years under John Paul. Reportedly the Cardinal turned it down in order not to be a Vatican bureaucrat and be a shepherd for his people. His record leads many including me to anticipate that he may well be the most intellectually astute leader of the archdiocese since George Cardinal Mundelein. And that he has reportedly passed up a huge appointment to stay here with us shows his mettle.

Good for him. Very well, then. Be the children’s archbishop and change the emphasis from protecting priests under suspicion to protecting children first, last and always. Justice Burke is entirely right.


  1. So-Called "Austin Mayor"January 28, 2006 at 1:38 PM


    Is there a typo in this quote?

    “He’s [the Cardinal] is the ultimate person in charge here,” she said. “He’s never had the intent, I think, to above by [the zero tolerance policy] other than in words. I’m hoping this is at least a wake-up call.”

  2. John Thomas McGeeanJanuary 29, 2006 at 3:04 PM

    I think the thing about the Cardinal going to the Vatican as head of DOF was more the wish of some of the lefities in Chicago. When the Pope offers a prelate a job, he better take it. Wishful thinking of some in Chicago.

    A priest is the only person in the land who is guilty until proven innocent. As I understand it the charge has to be substaniated before one can be removed.Once the accusation is substantiated, that is a bird of a different color.
    Sorry to disagree with you Tom