In Files, a History of Sexual Abuse by Priests in Chicago Archdiocese

NOTE: This article contains disturbing content that may be triggering for some readers.

 

By Steven Yaccino and Michael Paulson

CHICAGO — One priest, the Rev. William J. Cloutier, was accused of raping a boy in his summer cottage, locking the door when the 13-year-old started screaming, and then brandishing a handgun while threatening to kill him if he told anyone. Another, the Rev. Robert C. Becker, would take boys to a trailer where, they said, he slept beside them and molested them. And the Rev. Joseph R. Bennett was accused of raping a girl with the handle of a paten, a plate used to hold eucharistic bread.

Thousands of documents gleaned from the personnel files of the Archdiocese of Chicago were released to the public on Tuesday, unspooling a lurid history of abuse by priests and halting responses from bishops in the country’s third-largest archdiocese. In each case, the priests ultimately died or were ousted from ministry, and in most cases, the allegations were never proved in a criminal court. But the documents suggest that church officials were at times quite solicitous toward priests accused of abuse.

In one remarkable instance in 1997, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin was persuaded to allow the body of an abusive priest’s mother to be brought to the prison where the priest, the Rev. Norbert J. Maday, was incarcerated so he could pay his respects. Cardinal Francis E. George, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago, described the accommodation in a thank-you note as “an exceptional act of charity.”

Cardinal George’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, opted not to defrock the same priest, writing a letter to him in prison declaring that “you have suffered enough by your present deprivation of ministry and your incarceration.”

On Tuesday, shortly after the documents were posted online, the Archdiocese of Chicago published on its website a statement again apologizing for abuse by priests and declaring, “the Archdiocese acknowledges that its leaders made some decisions decades ago that are now difficult to justify.”

“We realize the information included in these documents is upsetting,” the statement said. “It is painful to read. It is not the Church we know or the Church we want to be.”

A few hours later, abuse victims and their lawyers gathered in the 23rd-floor ballroom of a downtown hotel, lined up in front of posters and a video screen displaying photographs of priests accused of abusing minors. At the side of a lectern sat three cardboard boxes filled with copies of the files.

Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who has represented numerous victims of clergy sexual abuse around the nation, said the documents depicted a “systematic, ongoing, decades-long, continuous pattern of conscious choices by top officials of the archdiocese,” and argued that church officials were complicit in the abuse when they failed to remove abusers from ministry.

“The priorities have been demonstrated to have been the protection of the offenders and the reputation of the archdiocese,” he said. Later, turning to the victims beside him, he said, “These children were not as important to them as the clergy were.”

Most of the abuse described in the documents was alleged to have taken place years ago; about half of the accused priests are dead, and many of the victims have already been given financial settlements from the archdiocese. Some of the documents have previously been available online, and have received attention in local news reports, as a result of criminal prosecutions and civil suits.

But the victims have pressed for public release of the files, arguing that the comprehensive set of documents will provide an important form of reckoning, chronicling what church officials did, and did not do, when they learned of accusations that priests had molested minors.

“For some of us it will be answers, for some of us it will be peace of mind, for some of us it’s wanting to know, but for all of us it’s a start,” said Angel Santiago, 47, who won a $700,000 settlement from the archdiocese in 2011 after accusing the Rev. Joseph L. Fitzharris of abusing him in the early 1980s. “It’s a little more weight off my shoulders,” he said, “but I still carry some of it.”

Father Fitzharris, who acknowledged abusing multiple boys, was defrocked in 2009. Father Cloutier, whose threats with the gun were investigated but not prosecuted by the local police in 1979, went on to face further accusations of abuse; he resigned from the priesthood in 1993 and died in 2003. Father Becker, who in 1986 wrote in a letter to Cardinal Bernardin about “how full of shame I feel for having betrayed you and the archdiocese,” died in 1989. Father Bennett, who denied most of the many accusations against him, resigned from the priesthood in 2012.

The personnel files of accused priests have previously been made public in other American dioceses, including Boston and Los Angeles, generally as a result of litigation. Most of the documents have been published in an online archive, BishopAccountability.org.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has paid about $100 million to settle abuse allegations against priests. The archdiocese has also posted to its website a list of 65 priests — none still in ministry — who the church said have been credibly accused of abusing minors; the documents released Tuesday concern 30 priests whose files were subject to negotiations with victims’ lawyers.

A lawyer for the accused priests, Joseph V. Roddy, said the documents’ accusations should be read with caution, because “some were tested in criminal court, but in the vast majority of cases, they’re just allegations.”

An archdiocesan lawyer told reporters last week that 95 percent of the allegations in the files concerned conduct before 1988, and none after 1996; 14 of the 30 accused priests are dead, and none are still serving in ministry. Cardinal George, who has been the archbishop of Chicago since 1997, has said he never met many of the priests.

The release of the Chicago files comes as Cardinal George, a 77-year-old cancer survivor and one of the leading intellectuals in the American church hierarchy, is awaiting permission from the Vatican to retire. Pope Francis’ choice of a new archbishop of Chicago will be closely watched as it will probably be the pope’s first appointment to lead a major American see.

Although the abuse described in the documents took place before Cardinal George became archbishop, many of the victims first came forward after his arrival; some of the files concern cases in which Cardinal George’s response has been questioned, including that of the Father Bennett, whose disciplinary proceeding the cardinal briefly delayed, and Father Maday, whose prison sentence the cardinal sought to reduce.

“It would be a great fulfillment of the millennium spirit to see your captive heart set free,” Cardinal George wrote to the incarcerated Father Maday in 2000. But the cardinal later changed his mind. In 2007, after several more people had come forward to say they had been abused by Father Maday, the cardinal wrote to a parole commission, saying he was seeking to defrock the priest.

The documents also shed new light on the handling of abusers by Cardinal Bernardin, a highly regarded figure in American Catholic history, and one of the first prominent church figures to act strongly against clergy sexual abuse by naming a board in 1992 to investigate future accusations. Cardinal Bernardin had occasionally given abusive priests second chances — for example, he allowed Father Fitzharris a new parish assignment, with the caveat that he should not be allowed unsupervised contact with high-school-age boys, after the priest had been criminally charged with sexually abusing a 15-year-old.

 

(To read original article, visit this New York Times link)

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