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Documents reveal Chicago archdiocese protected priests accused of sex abuse

January 21, 2014 at 6:00 PM EST
The revelation that the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago hid decades of child sex abuse was revealed through documents as part of a settlement with victims. The papers describe how church leadership reassigned priests accused of abuse to different parishes. Gwen Ifill talks to Jeff Anderson, attorney for the plaintiffs.
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GWEN IFILL: The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the country’s third largest, shielded and protected priests who were accused of sexual abuse for decades. Newly released papers document the actions of 30 priests, nearly half of them deceased, the rest now out of ministry. Victims who had long pressed for more information talked about it at a press conference in Chicago today.

JOE IACONO, abuse victim: The priest that abused me moved seven times and abused others. If they would have stopped him, like they would have stopped the other at the time of abuse, there would be many — there would be significantly less victims.

Part of the release of these files, I am hopeful that there will be less victims in the future and people will stop putting the reputation of the institution above the welfare of the children. That is my hope.

GWEN IFILL: The documents released as part of a settlement with those victims describe how the late Cardinals John Cody and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin approved the reassignments of priests.

In a letter sent to parishes this past weekend, Cardinal Francis George, who took over the Archdiocese in 1997, apologized for the past actions of the church, writing, “In the late ’80s, the archdiocese began to put its house in some order,” and he said he hoped transparency would be helpful. But he also said that almost all of the incidents were perpetrated by priests he never met.

We invited leaders of the archdiocese to appear tonight, but they declined.

We are joined by a lawyer for some of the victims, Jeff Anderson.

Welcome, Mr. Anderson.

What did you learn from this new raft of documents today?

JEFF ANDERSON, plaintiff’s attorney: Well, what 6,000 pages of the offending priests’ files reveal very clearly is a very longstanding pattern and practice by all the top officials, including the past and current cardinals, of making conscious choices to protect offenders, keep their offenses secret, and thus protect the reputation of the archdiocese from the 1950s to the present time and up until 2006.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Anderson, in this letter that Archbishop George sent to congregations this weekend, among the — he conceded there had been mistakes, but he went on to say, especially in the case of Father Daniel McCormack, who was arrested twice, he said, mistake is not a cover-up.

JEFF ANDERSON: Well, Cardinal George’s position that this was mistakes and primarily by those who preceded him is really deflection and denial.

When it comes to McCormack, it was on his watch, and there were reports to his office, and there was a second arrest that became known to him. And he chose to keep McCormack in ministry and give him a promotion, and McCormack continued to abuse children. And it is that kind of thing that’s reflected in these documents past and present that Cardinal George should himself be apologizing on behalf of himself and his choices and his predecessors.

And until he does and until they do, there can be no acknowledgment of the truth of the past and it’s destined to repeat in the future, which is what survivors really need, is — is change.

GWEN IFILL: So, this is not so much about discovery of new incidences of abuse themselves, but about holding the church accountable?

JEFF ANDERSON: Absolutely.

It’s really not about the offending priests anymore. These documents reveal the top officials had actual knowledge time and time again and chose to keep it secret. They made conscious choices, not mistakes, conscious choices, to protect themselves and the offenders, and in that case imperil many, many, many children.

And so what the survivors did is demand accountability and transparency. And when Cardinal George denies responsibility, he’s holding himself less accountability and being less than transparent. These documents do speak for themselves.

GWEN IFILL: That’s actually the language that he used, accountability and transparency, in his message to the church. But you obviously think that falls short.

In this case, we’re talking about 30 cases, 6,000 pages involving 30 cases. And there are 65 all together, so you’re expecting more?

JEFF ANDERSON: We are.

There’s another 35 yet to be revealed, and we’re working now to make sure that they are, the same way these 30 are. But what is evident is that there has been and remains a longstanding pattern and practice, and as long as the top officials deny that they are the problem, the problem persists.

GWEN IFILL: You have represented victims around the country. Is there a difference between the way the Chicago authorities have handled these cases and the way it’s been handled in other cities and jurisdictions?

JEFF ANDERSON: We have worked with survivors across the country in disgorgement of These kind of secrets, and documents, and these kinds of patterns. And, sadly, the pattern reflected here, past and present, are much like those across the country from L.A. to Philadelphia, and I’m sorry to say have grave similarities.

GWEN IFILL: So what are the options at this point for your clients? What are they seeking now from the church?

JEFF ANDERSON: Well, what the survivors need first is to know that the truth of the past is known and revealed, which makes it less likely to be repeated in the future, which means that the survivors can then rest more comfortably knowing that children will be less likely be harmed in the future if there is an acknowledgment of the problem and the practice and it is changed.

And what they really need is the practice to be acknowledged and to be changed so that kids are protected. That’s what survivors want.

GWEN IFILL: Have we seen the end of financial settlements in these cases?

JEFF ANDERSON: No. No, there’s a lot more work to be done. There’s a lot more disgorgement to be done. There’s a lot more accountability to be had.

And until there is a full transparency, full accountability, there is a lot of work to be done on the courage and the shoulders of the survivors with whom we work every day in gratitude.

GWEN IFILL: I guess I’m trying to get to the bottom of an interesting question here, which is both you and the church say what you really want more than anything else is healing, transparency that leads to healing for these survivors. Is that even possible?

JEFF ANDERSON: Well, I think it is.

I mean, these are wounds that run so deep, they are never erased. But there is healing through light, through truth and through the knowledge and the recovery of the power around accountability. And when survivors know they have done something to protect other kids of the future, they can rest better and feel better and recover their own power.

And, so, yes, they can get better, and they do. And when they know other kids are at risk, they remain anxious, worried and troubled that the same patterns that caused them to be harmed are being repeated both in the present and the future.

GWEN IFILL: Jeff Anderson, an attorney speaking on behalf of sexual abuse victims, thank you so much.

JEFF ANDERSON: You’re welcome.