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Catholic priest sex abuse scandal hits home, with more pain sure to come

A member of the clergy prays the rosary. | AP file photo

“What’s next?” Roman Catholics worldwide are asking as their church reels amid explosive revelations of sexual assault and abuse of minors by priests.

It certainly has hit home for me. During Mass in January, a representative of the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that the beloved pastor of my church had been accused of sexual abusing a minor in 1979, while serving in a south suburban parish.

After the Mass ended, I sat in the pew in stunned silence.

OPINION

The headlines of rampant abuse and cover-ups in the church are horrific enough. This was surreal. My pastor has been removed from the parish, pending the outcome of an investigation. Like many fellow parishioners, I am adamantly confident he will be cleared.

That will be small solace. Former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan can tell you why.

Madigan spoke recently at the Public Affairs Roundtable, hosted by attorney Ron Miller of Miller, Shakman & Beem. Miller regularly invites friends and colleagues to hear prominent figures lead luncheon discussions of local and national issues.

Madigan left office in January after serving four terms and is currently teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.

Last summer, in the twilight of her tenure, Madigan read a report from a grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania. It found that more than 300 Catholic priests there had sexually abused 1,000 children over seven decades.

“If you have kids, it’s a tough read. If you are Catholic, it’s a tough read,” she told the group. “It made me exceptionally angry, physically revolted.”

The report “made clear that this was the M.O. of the Catholic Church. Not just in Pennsylvania,” she added.

Madigan reached out to officials at the six Catholic dioceses in Illinois. Her office requested and examined files, audits, communications, and files of reports of abuse by clergy.

They found that the Illinois dioceses had significantly underreported the extent of the allegations. “We were shocked by what we saw, initially. We were shocked by the numbers,” Madigan said.

Previously, “the Illinois dioceses have publicly identified only 185 clergy as having been ‘credibly’ accused of sexual abuse,” according the preliminary report Madigan issued in December.

Her investigation found that 690 Catholic clergy had been accused of sexual assault and abuse by minors.

“That means there were over 500 additional priests and clergy members, who had allegations of sexual assault and abuse against them, that had never been disclosed to the public,” Madigan said. “Many of whom had never really been investigated.”

The dioceses had failed to properly investigate, for example, in cases where the priest had died, had resigned from the ministry or left the country. Or when a lawsuit was filed, or when a criminal investigation had been opened, or when the survivor asked to remain anonymous.

“And even when they did do investigations, and it appeared that those allegations of sexual assault or abuse should be substantiated, they didn’t always provide that information to the public,” Madigan said. “They didn’t always provide that information to the survivors.”

“The level of disregard of survivors’ allegations … just amazes me,” she added.

In a statement, the Chicago Archdiocese disputed Madigan’s findings, saying it “has been at the forefront of dealing with the issue of clergy sexual abuse for nearly three decades,” and is continually working to review and improve its processes and procedures.

The investigation continues under current Attorney General Kwame Raoul. The office established a hotline for abuse victims, and has received hundreds of calls.

What’s next? Surely more pain to come.

Laura S. Washington is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a political analyst for ABC-7 Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @MediaDervish

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