Thursday, June 29, 2006


Does it have to do with paper’s fascination with holdover Bernardin favorite who as Archdiocese’s No. 2 had major responsibility for giving prelate the full pedophilia story? Trib writer asked for and later ignored critical Wanderer articles of Chancellor before preparing “puff piece.” She exults: Jimmy will “clean it up” after issue “spun out of Cardinal’s control.” Lago’s proposal “catches George by surprise.”

[Another article from the nation’s oldest Catholic weekly detailing articles you haven’t seen and won’t in Chicago’s two mighty, politically correct dailies].

By Thomas F. Roeser

CHICAGO—Three months after he accepted full responsibility for the archdiocese’s lagging action to remove a Chicago priest for alleged abuse of minors, some supporters of Francis Cardinal George believe he may well be victimized by politically shrewd members of the church bureaucracy whom he mistakenly trusts.

That view is considerably bolstered by release of an independent audit that details dereliction by administrative leaders he sorely needs to run the Church here.

The crisis so depressed the prelate that it was rumored he entertained serious consideration of resigning—which would have pleased his liberal critics immensely. As the independent audit outlines, the resignation would have been totally unwarranted but exactly what George’s critics, cheer-leaders for the permissive policies of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, want.

Far from blaming George for the crisis, the multi-page document charges that the administrative staff bears major responsibility for not bringing details to his attention. The liberal news media here, however, have not focused on the charge. Instead they have given lavish treatment to the top administrator himself and to the retirement of a radical pastor who was first to tell the media that the Cardinal may have to resign.

Cardinal George, regarded as one of the brightest lights of the U. S. church, bravely—probably too unqualifiedly—accepted full responsibility for the derelictions of the archdiocese bureaucracy. It was a gallant gesture in the time-honored tradition of President Harry Truman that “the buck stops here.” Facing the glare of television media standing alone, it was a generous act to a fault by a man whom fellow prelates around the world recognize as unassuming and gentle, qualities that go with a superb intellectual talent fitting for a holder of doctorates in theology and philosophy. But the official audit by an independent agency insists the Cardinal was denied the facts any executive would need to make a definitive decision on the matter.

Instead a major newspaper which has severely criticized the Cardinal, has strangely larded great praise on the number two administrator who had major responsibility to keep the Cardinal informed.

The firm of Defenbaugh & Associates was retained by the archdiocese to conduct an independent study of the lessons learned from the arrest of Fr. Daniel McCormack who has been charged with sexually abusing three children, with additional accusations raised by more families. Its March findings were cited by media more interested in nailing the prelate than in sifting through evidence to pinpoint source of the blame. At the height of the media criticism, Catholic Citizens of Illinois staged a rally on the steps of Holy Name cathedral—a rally that was very nearly aborted by an officious female staff functionary working at the Cathedral who wanted to move it to a back room adjacent to the church. Catholic Citizens refused to agree to the move. As result, the media saw a free-forming grassroots movement of Catholics supporting the prelate. The functionary stalked away with evident anger.

Now other supporters of the Cardinal cite the exact language of Defenbaugh. In its executive summary, the report says “The audit found that Francis Cardinal George did not know what he needed to know to make a definitive decision regarding Father McCormack from October 1999 through December 2005 because he was not advised of all the information in possession of his staff. Cardinal George was not apprised of the entirety of … information in possession of archdiocesan staff regarding the credibility of the allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by McCormack.” [Italics mine]. That information spanned allegations from his seminary days from 1988 through 1991. The report suggests that had the Cardinal had the benefit of this information, “he may have reached a different decision concerning McCormack’s status” following the arrest.

The findings present a whole tissue of administrative deficiencies that were not in the Cardinal’s direct purview as the spiritual leader of the archdiocese. The duties which were deficient are commonly ascribed to the chancellor of the archdiocese, the man who calls himself the Cardinal’s “right hand man.” This “right hand man” has been standing quietly by while Cardinal George has taken the blame. But it is clear to many who study the report, that blame should go first to the chancellor of the archdiocese to whom administrative responsibilities fall.

The chancellor’s name is Jimmy Lago, who was christened “Jimmy”—not James—when he was born just 90 minutes after the birth of his twin brother who was named “Timmy”—not Timothy. Lago, who describes himself as the highest ranking Catholic layman in the nation as chancellor, a post that usually goes to priests, is a long-serving bureaucrat, as recently the beneficiary of a front-page laudatory “profile” by the Chicago Tribune. Lago has received much criticism in these dispatches for The Wanderer, the only publication to do so. He has received adulatory press from newspapers who value liberal social action as superior to theological considerations and from TV and radio which ploddingly follow newspapers’ lead.

A few weeks ago, the Tribune which I have written for as Op Ed
columnist contacted me preparatory to writing the Lago profile. The
reporter asked for my file of stories on the pedophilia stories that I for the Wanderer. I sent the entire sheaf including fulsome criticism of Lago. Nary a line appeared from the stories appeared in her article that extolled the second-in-command of the archdiocese for perspicacious service to the Church while also depicting Cardinal George as having lost control.

Jimmy Lago “the cardinal’s right-hand man,” the article exults, oversees more than a dozen departments and “is one of the most influential laymen in the nation’s Catholic hierarchy and the most powerful parishioner appointed by the Cardinal in his 2.3 million-number flock.” With that awesome prestige, one would think that Lago would be held at least partially responsible for the heavily-critical audit, the burden of which the Cardinal has had to bear. But the article makes no mention of the audit.

In substance, the audit says
• “The Archdiocese of Chicago did not follow its own established policies, procedures and protocols, including those related to the reporting of allegations and the monitoring of an
accused priest;

• “The Archdiocese is not in compliance with the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People with regard to completion of safe environment training and background checks;

• “[The Archdiocese’s failure] to report allegations of clerical abuse of minors on the part of individuals within the Archdiocese exacerbated the circumstances surrounding the McCormack case to the point of violating Illinois mandatory reporting statues;

• “[The] lack of effective communication between the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Archdiocese worsened and magnified the McCormack situation and

• “the Archdiocese of Chicago’s policy on monitoring is inadequate and ineffective.”

That would seem to be a jaw-droppingly serious indictment with which to question Jimmy Lago but aside from some boilerplate from SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) about administrative inefficiency, Lago’s deficiencies did not received much attention in the front page story festooned with a color picture of the chancellor.

Religion writer Manya A. Brachear who asked for The Wanderer stories, received them but discarded them, wrote, “Lago has always tried to stay behind the scenes.” Especially when the heat is on. . He remained quiet while allegations were made that the Church did nothing to stop Fr. McCormack. In fact, he was away on vacation when the story broke. More boys came forward with allegations and, as the Tribune says in the laudatory Lago profile, “parishioners demanded answers from Cardinal Francis George—answers he did not have.” Interesting direction the story took after Brachear had spent much time interviewing Lago.

A generally inquisitive reporter might be tempted to ask what responsibility Lago had to alert the Cardinal about the looming scandal since Lago is purportedly the most influential layman in the U. S. church due to his chancellor position. But that question didn’t occur to Ms. Brachear.

Why didn’t the Cardinal know on his own about the scandal? Well, he doesn’t exactly have a lot of time on his hands. In addition to being archbishop of Chicago, in 1999 John Paul II named him to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome. Also to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples which also meets in Rome, to the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, the Congregation for Oriental Churches and to the Pontifical Council for Culture. In addition, he was elected to the Council for the World Synod of Bishops in 2001. He is vice president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and is expected to become president soon. He is chairman of the USCCB’s Commission on the Liturgy, is the U. S. bishops’ representative to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICL), chancellor of the Catholic Church Extension Society, chancellor of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary at Mundelein, Illinois, a member of the board of trustees of Catholic University of America, trustee of the Papal Foundation, a director of the National Catholic Bio-Ethics Center in Boston, a director of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, publisher of The Catholic New World and Chicago Catolico, the official newspapers of the archdiocese for which he writes regular columns. He appears regularly on the radio program “The Catholic Community of Faith” and on cable television, “The Church, the Cardinal and You.”

With an administrative load like that, why wouldn’t any reporter interviewing Lago ask when Lago knew about the pedophile investigation, when he informed the Cardinal and how much information he conveyed.

But Tribune profile writers are famous for coming to their subjects with their minds made up by faceless editors whose names are seldom recognizable outside the paper’s gothic Tower but who don’t relish bio stories that depart from Chamber of Commerce-style stereotype.

Lago began his archdiocesan service under Cardinal Bernardin. His official biography says he was born in 1946 in Maine, that he recruited neighborhood children for sandlot baseball games. As a teen, Jimmy and Timmy Lago attended a boarding school run by nuns who spoke French in the mornings and English in the afternoons—nuns whom, Lago says, made an indelible mark by modeling the relationship between religion and social justice.

He matriculated at DePaul University, now known as one of the most radically secular universities to still carry the Catholic name. There he met his wife. His studies at DePaul, he says, “heightened his social conscience.” True: markedly so. An activist of the 1960s, he joined the Cesar Chavez movement to serve migrant farm-workers and received a masters in social work, serving as a caseworker in an exurban county in Illinois. There he says he detected child abuse in affluent families.

When Illinois’ six Catholic bishops started the Illinois Catholic Conference in 1976 and wanted a lobbyist, they hired Lago. Two full-time pro-life activists still working the Springfield capitol corridors told me that ex-Chavez demonstrator Lago was totally disinterested in fighting for passage of pro-life legislation in the legislature. At least one such lobbyist contacted the Tribune’s Brachear with his observations but they went unrecorded in her piece. If she ever wrote it, the Tower spiked it.

While pro-life lobbying reportedly languished in Springfield under Lago, all observers say he was thoroughly involved in trying to get parochaid passed. The Tribune article said he was critical of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services for supposedly “failing children”—the same organization that now is criticizing archdiocese administration which falls under Lago, a neat irony which escaped Ms. Brachear.

In 1996, under Cardinal Bernardin, Lago became executive director of Catholic Charities, the largest social welfare organization in the Midwest. Several executives in social programs who worked with and under him tell me they were under-whelmed. But in those years his career flourished as he was a popular favorite with Cardinal Bernardin. With Bernardin’s death, Lago was seen as a man who could serve continuity. He was named chancellor of the archdiocese by Cardinal George in 2000.

The Tribune credits Lago with meeting the pedophilia crisis by making what it calls “an unprecedented solution” to the Cardinal. Since technically Lago as number two was in control of the administrative details which Defenbaugh & Associates severely criticized, certainly some recommendation was appropriate. The newspaper says that Lago “insisted that the archdiocese open itself to scrutiny by giving outside investigators unlimited access to confidential files and personnel” as if in the wake of scandal the idea was entirely voluntary. But Ms. Brachear, the Tribune writer, records that the stirring proposal by Lago “caught the cardinal by surprise.” The image of the prelate being astonished at a request for transparency comes from her interview with Lago. Lago the innovator; Cardinal George the astonished executive who lost control, responding meekly to the stunning progressive recommendation of Lago.

“He didn’t obviously know where I was going with this,” Lago told her. “He doesn’t expect me to tell him what he wants to hear. That’s never been our deal. Our deal has been I tell him what he needs to know and he makes up his own mind.” One is tempted to add—evidently not quite all he needed to know, Mr. Lago, as the audit report stresses.

And as many critics have maintained since the crisis broke, as number two since 2000, Lago carried that authority all along—authority that the study claims was not put to the service of the Cardinal resulting in his not having the sufficient information with which to make a decision.

In March, the Cardinal announced that Lago would have authority over the issue of pedophilia. Longtime chancery watchers said it was the equivalent of President Bush calling a news conference and saying that from here on, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will have jurisdiction over the Iraq War. The communications surrounding the crisis has always managed to see Lago emerge as the hero, Cardinal George as the genial but befuddled executive as media place little emphasis on the official audit which blisters the administrative staff for failing to inform the Cardinal.

For Chicagoans inured to glossy political promotion, the upside going to Lago and the downside going to Cardinal George begs suspicion. In politics here, there is a distinct similarity. The downside goes to the poor stiffs in the Water Department who get indicted; the upside goes to the man big business, the Chamber of Commerce and even President George W. Bush say is the nation’s greatest mayor—Richard M. Daley.

Last week came Ms. Brachear’s Tribune puff piece (“puff” is Chicago journalese for the unwarranted splendiferous promotion of an individual) saying that “as the situation spun out of the cardinal’s control,” Lago prompted the prelate to release “more than 30 instances in which the church employees disregarded red flags—egregious errors that might not have come to light had it not been for Lago.” I suppose she’s right since Lago evidently knew about the 30 instances all along.

“Now that’s interesting,” said a veteran Lago watcher who followed the chancellor’s progress from lobbyist to charities executive to number two in the archdiocese, a similar trek that resembles upward mobility in the Democratic party here. “As number two he had the responsibility since 2000 but now he sails into the media with a program that makes the Cardinal look dazed, out of control and Jimmy to the rescue! All the while he was responsible for the errors that he now tells the paper would not come to light but for Lago. If that ain’t chutzpah, I don’t know what is!”

Near the end of the Tribune article, correspondent Brachear writes, “Church insiders say Lago’s loyalty…is what appealed to George when he hired him six years ago.”
Loyalty to whom,- Ms.Brachear?
Addendum to the article on Preston Noell, the activist with the organization Church, Family & Tradition which is fighting anti-Catholic bigotry: I should have written that the organization has issued a call to reject lifting the statutes of limitations on civil suits concerning decades-old sexual abuses. It has published full-page ads in national newspapers claiming the measures unfairly penalize Catholics in the pews while favoring the agenda of dissident activist groups inside the Church. Such measures would allow the government to investigate decades-old cases and hold today’s 67 million Catholics responsible for damages.

A new item about Noell and his organization, that has just surfaced: mobilized activists from throughout the country to gather in two final rallies at Sony headquarters in New York city and Los Angeles to voice concern to the corporate entertainment giant. The organization can be reached on the internet at


  1. Someone You KnowJune 29, 2006 at 8:00 AM

    You mention that colleagues of Lago at Catholic Charities say they were "underwhelmed." It would be more accurate to say that he was overwhelmed.

    He went from being head of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which had a handful of employees, to being head of Catholic Charities of Chicago, which had more than 2,000 employees. It was downhill from there, until he was mercifully rescued by being transfered to the Chancery. His successor was promoted from within.

    An accurate account of his career will list his tenure at Charities not as another rung in an upward ladder, but as an embarrasing detour that indicates a disconnect between his ascent and his qualifications.

  2. Tom Roeser deserves the thanks of readers for his insightful analysis on this audit and the personalities in the Church administration. There really is no other independent venue that does such a good job of detailed reporting on the internal affairs of the Archidiocese of Chicago. We often do not feel comfortable using the word "politics" let alone "intrigue" to describe the maneuvers and policy debates of the Church. Yet the debate of internal Church matters is important and is of interest to many lay members of the Chicago-area parishes. Just knowing of a source that can really cover these matters intelligently and truthfully is a big help for those of us who want to point our friends to a reliable venue.