Jurors can punish archdiocese for mishandling McCormack case

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A Cook County judge has ruled a victim who says he was abused by former Catholic priest Daniel McCormack will be able to seek punitive damages against the Chicago Archdiocese at trial — opening the door for other victims to do the same and effectively offering jurors the opportunity to punish the archdiocese for its oversight of the now-infamous child molester.

Judge Clare McWilliams signed off on punitive damages after deciding it was reasonably likely that plaintiff attorneys would be able to prove to a jury that McCormack’s previous misconduct as a seminarian were known to officials and the archdiocese acted in “utter disregard” in their “hiring, supervision and retention” of McCormack.

It was revealed at a court hearing last week that as an undergraduate at Niles College, McCormack allegedly sexually molested a drunken seminarian who had passed out. Another seminarian, who had also passed out after drinking, woke up to find McCormack putting his hands down his pants three different times. The alleged assaults were reported to a school counselor who stayed silent about the matter, Eugene Hollander, the attorney who represents the victim, said at the hearing.

“This is the first warning sign about Rev. McCormack,” Hollander said in court, according to transcripts.

Hollander went on to reference deposition testimony that revealed more warning signs.

Several years later in 1991, McCormack was studying to be a priest at Mundelein Seminary and had traveled to Mexico with a group of classmates to learn Spanish, where they witnessed McCormack, drunk at a bar, allegedly “punching or slapping” the butt of a young man who appeared to be a minor, Hollander said.

Three of the seminarians who saw the incident told an official at Mundelein. One of the men also added that McCormack had allegedly engaged in oral sex with seminarians at Niles College.

Confronted with this information by the top two officials at Mundelein Seminary, McCormack owned up to the misbehavior, Hollander said in court.

Hollander added that one official testified that he passed the information along to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. And despite protocol that called for expulsion, Bernardin went on to ordain McCormack in 1994.

In her six-page ruling issued Tuesday, McWilliams notes: “A jury could find that the defendants were aware that there was a problem of priests and pastors abusing individuals in their official capacity, and yet were reckless in investigating an individual who was training to become a priest when questionable circumstances, some involving borderline-consensual sexual activity, kept occurring.”

Punitive damages in the form of a cash award to a victim would be in addition to any compensatory damages awarded for pain and suffering, and would provide jurors a way to send a message or punish the Archdiocese of Chicago, if they decided in the plaintiff’s favor.

A trial date in the case is set for July 22. The victim, identified only as John Doe on court documents, was in grade school at St. Agatha’s on the West Side when he was allegedly abused by McCormack in September of 2000.

If the case goes to trial, McWilliams granted a motion submitted by Hollander that would require McCormack to testify.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Burritt refused to comment on the matter Wednesday, apart from issuing the following statement: “We are disappointed in the ruling and will respond in court at the appropriate time.”

McWilliams’ ruling opens the door for multiple other victims with cases pending against McCormack and the archdiocese to seek punitive damages at trial.

The archdiocese has thus far avoided trials involving lawsuits brought by victims of McCormack by paying millions of dollars to settle out of court.

This is not the first McCormack victim Hollander has represented. He represented a victim who received a $1.25 million settlement in May of 2015. In that case a man in his 20s said McCormack abused him when he was in the fourth and fifth grades at St. Ailbe parish on the South Side.

John O’Malley, an attorney for the archdiocese who handles misconduct cases, told the Sun-Times in October that a large portion of the pending priest sexual abuse litigation against the church — about 60 active cases — involve McCormack. He could not be reached Wednesday.

McCormack was arrested in 2006 and later sentenced to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing five children at St. Agatha Catholic Church on the West Side.

He faces a new set of criminal charges filed in 2014, this time for an alleged 2005 incident involving a minor boy, also at St. Agatha.

McCormack was removed from the priesthood in 2007. He has been staying at a state-run mental health facility since his release from prison.

The state is seeking to declare McCormack a sexually violent person — a measure that would keep him locked up in a secure treatment facility until he was deemed to no longer be a threat to the public.

A spokeswoman from Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, which is seeking the order, said Wednesday evening that the case is pending.

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