Cardinal lifts the veil on abuses

George announces $12.7 million payout to victims of priest attacks, discloses his sworn deposition and says: ‘I have to accept the blame’

By Manya A. Brachear, Margaret Ramirez and Azam Ahmed, Chicago Tribune reporters


The sexual abuse of children happened on his watch.

And so for the first time, Cardinal Francis George on Tuesday opened the books on a litany of failures by church officials as he announced a $12.7 million lawsuit settlement by the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

By releasing the details and unveiling his own sworn deposition, the archbishop revealed a flawed and secretive system where priests and bishops employed by the archdiocese to this day protected their own.

Some victims’ advocates say the cardinal’s wholesale disclosure also signaled a new era of cooperation that will prevent wrongdoing in the future and hasten the healing process for victims.

“This goes a long way to help those survivors in their recovery,” victims’ attorney Jeff Anderson said. “They have begun the process of coming clean and transparent in a way they have never done before. It’s now no longer about secrets. It’s about protection.”

Historically, the archdiocese has insisted on keeping confidential the settlements with more than 250 survivors of clergy sex abuse. But lawyers for the victims and the archdiocese together Tuesday announced the most recent settlement involving 16 victims and 11 accused priests, bringing the total abuse payments to date to $77 million.

Fourteen of those victims alleged abuse between 1962 and 1994. Two of the victims suffered at the hands of convicted child molester Daniel McCormack when he served as pastor of St. Agatha Roman Catholic Church on the city’s West Side. Lawyers for the victims identified the other deceased priests or former priests named in the settlement as Joseph Bennett, Norbert Maday, Robert Mayer, James Hagan, Robert Craig, the late Robert Becker, the late Thomas Kelly, James Steel, Joseph Owens and the late Kenneth Ruge.

In his deposition, George revealed under oath the steps, missteps and lies that led to McCormack’s tenure at St. Agatha years after initial allegations of misconduct surfaced during his seminary days. According to the document, as many as 23 people have alleged abuse by McCormack, who is now serving a 5-year prison sentence.

The allegations against McCormack spurred the archdiocese to commission an independent 2006 audit of what went wrong in the case.

In the deposition, the cardinal also detailed church deception and coverup in the Bennett investigation-facts omitted from that audit.

Standing before television cameras Tuesday, the cardinal once again said he was sorry for not acting sooner and promised more transparency.

“In the sense I’m responsible for this archdiocese, I have to accept the blame,” George said.

The eight-hour, 305-page transcript of George and Anderson taken in January displayed a wide range of emotions from remorse to defensiveness. In the sometimes confrontational exchange, the cardinal also blamed other institutions for allowing McCormack to go free, including police, prosecutors and child welfare officials.

He defended the archdiocese’s actions regarding the delayed removal of Bennett from Holy Ghost parish in South Holland in February 2006. Bennett’s removal was prompted by the widening McCormack scandal.

In the investigation of Bennett, the deposition finds the cardinal and church officials received four detailed allegations of sexual abuse dating back to 2002. But they did not act to remove Bennett from his church until 2006, despite two recommendations from the archdiocese review board months earlier, according to the deposition.

Instead, Bennett was placed under the supervision of a monitor, Rev. Leonard Dubi, who apparently was Bennett’s close friend. George disregarded a recommendation by an archdiocese review board to remove Bennett in October 2005 and again in November, attributing the delay to the priest’s lack of representation by a canon lawyer.

By the time he was removed, the deposition reveals, more than a dozen allegations had mounted against the priest-a fact the archdiocese failed to tell parishioners and the public.

George’s testimony and church correspondence on Bennett also indicated that the archdiocese’s vicar for priests, Rev. Edward Grace, himself a lawyer, played a role in coaching clergy to deny allegations.

In 2002, a male victim voluntarily underwent a lie-detector test that showed he was telling the truth. The cardinal says he never received that information. In 2003, a female victim tells archdiocese officials specific details about freckles on Bennett’s scrotum and a round birthmark on his back that led an archdiocese review board to conclude that sexual abuse “did happen.”

Grace advised Bennett on how to handle the victim’s knowledge of his private parts, according to a memo. According to the testimony, Grace told Bennett in November 2005 to get a note from a dermatologist questioning whether the scrotum marks might be “aging marks” and may not have been present at the time of the allegation.

The victims’ attorney, Anderson, asks the cardinal about the freckles matter, saying: “Grace is-looks like he’s trying to explain it away. Do you read it that way?”

George responds: “It could be read that way.”

The cardinal said Grace and George Rassas-then vicar general, now auxiliary bishop-also withheld information about allegations before McCormack’s promotion to a supervisory role days after his August 2005 arrest, actions for which a letter of reprimand was placed in their file.

At several points in the questioning about Bennett, Anderson asked the cardinal whether he is more concerned about the rights of accused priests and the legal process than he is about protecting children at risk.

George answered: “No. The children at risk were, I thought, protected and they were in this case by the monitoring and the restrictions. I was interested in fairness, the same values that permeate any legal system.”

Some victims of the priests who were named in the lawsuit settlement doubted George’s sincerity.

Therese Albrecht, one of Bennett’s accusers, said she felt ignored when she came forward in 2004.

“I feel indescribable anger and pain. What price can you put on an 8-year-old’s virginity?” she said. “He didn’t call me up. I never got an apology.”

Bob Brancato, who said he was abused by Steel, his priest at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Wheeling, when he was 12 and 13, said “there is no amount of time or money that can change what happened.”

William Martin now represents the only case still in litigation involving McCormack. He had filed a motion to obtain a copy of the deposition. He said that motion prompted the archdiocese’s decision to make it public.

“No one realizes all the objections and fighting that are giving rise to the voluntary actions,” he said Tuesday.

At the end of the deposition, a frustrated Anderson demands to know why all these files have not been made public.

George replies: “It just seems to me not to be the thing to do. The victims themselves would not want to see their stories paraded in public, I think. They should make that public if they want to. I don’t think we have a right to make those stories public.”