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DCFS launches 24 investigations into abuse allegations against priests that it failed to look into before

DCFS has hired former federal prosecutor Steven Block to conduct an independent investigation on how the agency handled notifications from the archdiocese about clergy abuse allegations.

Marc Smith
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith in May. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Officials from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services are launching 24 investigations into reported misconduct by Chicago-area priests after an internal review revealed the state child welfare agency might have mishandled hundreds of abuse reports originating from the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Earlier this month, investigators with DCFS were looking into a recent clergy abuse case when they realized many past complaints had not been “properly processed” under a special reporting protocol put in place 13 years ago, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said Wednesday. It requires the archdiocese to notify the agency whenever they receive an abuse allegation, even if the alleged victim is an adult.

That spurred a review of all 1,100 such complaints received since the protocol was put in place in 2006. Twenty-four of those merited a full probe, mostly because investigators don’t know where the priests currently live — or if they’re still alive — among other lingering questions, Strokosch said.

The new investigations involve adults who came forward years after the alleged abuse.

“The major concern from DCFS is that while the victims may be adults, the priests may still have access to children,” Strokosch said. “What we don’t know is what happened from 2006 to 2019.”

DCFS has hired former federal prosecutor Steven Block — who led the case against disgraced ex-U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert — to conduct an independent investigation on how the agency handled notifications from the archdiocese about clergy abuse allegations.

Part of the problem was a lack of consistent “institutional knowledge” in an agency riddled by high turnover, Strokosch said. Acting DCFS director Marc Smith, appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in March, is the 14th leader to cycle into the agency’s top post since the clergy protocol was put in place in 2006.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese, which serves as the local arm of the Catholic Church, said: “We do not know which cases DCFS is reviewing but we have reported all allegations of child sexual abuse to DCFS and civil authorities.”

The protocol was put in place in 2006 in the fallout of Daniel McCormack’s horrific tenure at a West Side parish where he worked as a priest, teacher and basketball coach. Miscommunication between DCFS and the archdiocese allowed him to stay on the job in contact with students for several months before he eventually was convicted of sexually abusing five boys, among dozens of other allegations of molestation.

McCormack remains committed indefinitely at a Downstate mental institution after a judge declared him a “sexually violent person.” The archdiocese has paid out millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements to his victims over the years.