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State AG: Church underreported number of priests with sex misconduct allegations

Blase Cupich

Cardinal Blase Cupich | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times files

Even as Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich has taken a larger role in proposing reforms in response to the priest sex abuse crisis raging across the United States and around the world, a report released Wednesday by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan shows the Catholic church in Illinois has dramatically underreported the number of priests with sexual misconduct allegations.

Across Illinois — which is broken into six Catholic “dioceses,” each headed by a bishop and based on geography — the church has publicly identified 185 clergy with credible accusations of child abuse, according to Madigan.

An investigation by her agency identified 500 other clergy members in Illinois with sex misconduct allegations dating back decades, Madigan said, describing her findings and the allegations uncovered by her investigators as “disheartening” and “disgusting.”

Madigan acknowledged it’s not clear whether all of the newly unearthed allegations are credible.

But she noted that in many instances the church did very little to try to determine their validity.

“If they had an excuse not to investigate” a sex abuse claim internally, “they took it,” Madigan said.

“The Catholic church, they should have never been in a position to police themselves.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago — the church’s arm for Cook and Lake counties, overseen by Cupich — released a statement that said of Madigan’s findings: “The nature of the report makes it difficult to discern which generalized findings apply to the Archdiocese of Chicago,” rather than the five other dioceses in Illinois.

The statement also says that the archdiocese “has been at the forefront of dealing with the issue of clergy sexual abuse for nearly three decades.” It adds: “We have subjected our processes, policies and files to the review of multiple independent experts multiple times to help ensure we remain accountable and current in dealing with this issue.”

Cupich and the archdiocese, however, have repeatedly refused to answer key questions from reporters about the extent of the sex abuse problem in his domain, including:

  • How many priests belonging to religious “orders” — Catholic groups that generally span the diocese borders — are living or working in his jurisdiction with sex abuse allegations.
  • How many misconduct allegations exist with priests and other adults, and how they have been dealt with.
  • The overall financial impact of sex abuse claims and settlements.

Cupich’s office also had been keeping under wraps allegations made after some accused priests died. He only began releasing those names in recent weeks after Madigan’s office discovered the loophole during its investigation.

Cupich’s profile has risen with Pope Francis, who appointed Cupich to oversee the church in Chicago in 2014. The Mundelein Seminary that Cupich oversees will be the site of a spiritual retreat next month for American bishops who are expected to focus on the sex abuse crisis, at least in part.

Madigan said her report will hopefully serve as “a critical document for discussion” at that gathering.

Cupich also was tapped to help organize a larger bishop gathering on sex abuse in February at the Vatican, the worldwide seat of the church where the pope resides. The decision was seen as further elevating Cupich’s status within the church hierarchy.

The Pennsylvania state attorney general released a report in August showing that, for decades, priests raped children in that state, and bishops covered those crimes up, sometimes by transferring culprits.

The revelations sparked a public fury, and a federal investigation by the U.S. attorney of eastern Pennsylvania into that state’s dioceses, though the agency asked that all dioceses in the country preserve certain records.

Madigan launched her probe after the Pennsylvania report, which noted several priests who once worked in Illinois.

The intent was to see how the dioceses in Illinois had handled their own priest problems.

Cupich said at private meeting with seminarians later in August that Madigan’s probe was no big deal, and that her agency already had all pertinent church records, but that the archdiocese would oblige her just the same.

“Our record’s clean,” Cupich said back then, without noting the archdiocese paid out roughly $200 million in legal settlements over the years for sex-abuse claims.

“We are not what happened” in Pennsylvania, he said.

He also said at the time, “we have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this.” This statement, apparently minimizing the sex abuse crisis, caused more outrage.

On Wednesday, he was quoted in the archdiocese statement as saying, “I want to express again the profound regret of the whole church for our failures to address the scourge of clerical sexual abuse.”

Madigan’s report released Wednesday was termed “preliminary,” meaning her investigation is continuing.

She leaves office in January when her successor, Kwame Raoul, takes over. He has said he will continue the probe, but his spokeswoman indicated recently it’s too early to say whether he might expand it – for instance, starting to examine the records of Catholic religious orders who operate somewhat independently of dioceses and often span their boundaries.

Madigan said in a previous interview: “We know this problem is not confined to diocesan clergy . . . the religious orders need to be looked at as well.”

One religious order, the Jesuits, recently revealed the names of alleged abusers, including 18 with accusations in the Chicago region.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have declined to say whether they are – or plan to be – taking a deeper look at the church, or are cooperating with their Pennsylvania colleagues.

Madigan’s office has been in touch with the U.S. attorney’s office in Pennsylvania about the church, but to what extent is unclear.

Either way, Madigan’s report concluded that there’s “enough information to conclude that the Illinois Dioceses will not resolve the clergy sexual abuse crisis on their own.”