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Scope of clerical sex abuse against children in Illinois widens with release of new report. Abusers able to ‘hide, often in plain sight.’

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, May 24, 2023  |  Article  |  Scope of clerical sex abuse against children in Illinois widens with release of new report. Abusers able to ‘hide, often in plain sight.’

One survivor of clerical sex abuse recounted being kept inside her fifth grade classroom at her Woodlawn neighborhood Catholic school during recess in the 1980s, where a Carmelite religious order priest would repeatedly force her to sit on his lap and rape her.

He told her God wanted him to do this to her, she recalled to Illinois attorney general’s office investigators in one of a litany of victim accounts highlighted in a scathing report released Tuesday on the scale and scope of Catholic clergy sex abuse statewide.

“I think that what people don’t understand is when you are a child, you don’t separate a priest from God,” she told investigators. “He was God. To me, he was God’s worker.”

The investigation determined that Catholic leaders in Illinois have vastly underreported clergy sex abuse against children, finding that “decades of Catholic leadership decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight,” according to the report.

The 700-page document revealed the names and detailed information of 451 Catholic clerics and religious brothers who abused at least 1,997 children across all six dioceses in Illinois, between 1950 and 2019.

Prior to the investigation, Catholic leaders in Illinois had only publicly listed 103 substantiated child sex abusers, meaning several hundred more perpetrators came to light over the course of the statewide inquiry into clerical sex abuse that began in 2018, according to the attorney general’s office.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul — who described being raised Catholic in a devout household — listed a litany of contributions the church has made in education, helping those in need, assisting disabled children and advocating against violence, among other virtues.

“However, it is precisely because of its many virtuous deeds and benevolence that we, the public and many families, put faith in the Catholic Church and its leaders in ways that we do not trust other establishments,” he said during a Tuesday news conference on the report. “But when such trust is betrayed with abuse to children — and there are efforts to cover it up — the call for accountability should be resounding.”

The number of victims and cases of abuse in the Illinois report exceed those of the blistering 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report, a bombshell 18-month investigation of clergy sex abuse across that state, which shed light on more than 300 cases and identified 1,000 children who were victims. At the time, it was considered the broadest investigation of its kind into the matter of clerical sexual abuse.

The findings of the Pennsylvania grand jury report included some accused priests and religious brothers with links to Illinois, which spurred the Illinois attorney general’s office to launch its probe here.

In response to the report, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich in a written statement said no clergy member “with even one substantiated allegation against him is in ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago.”

“When we learn of an allegation of abuse, we act promptly, report it to civil authorities, remove the accused from ministry and investigate the allegation,” the statement said.

While archdiocesan officials hadn’t had time to review the report in detail, officials there “have concerns about data that might be misunderstood or are presented in ways that could be misleading,” the statement said.

The statement added that the Archdiocese of Chicago adopted policies and programs to “address the scourge of child sexual abuse and to support survivors” in 1992, and those protocols have been used as “a model for organizations and professionals dealing with this difficult issue.”

In a phone interview with the Tribune, Cupich said all reports of abuse are reported to civil authorities and thoroughly investigated by an independent review board.

He added that the church deeply apologizes to abuse survivors.

“This should have never happened to them at all,” he said. “But I think we also have made great progress over the past 30 years. Our mantra here is we need to bow to our past and not be bound by it.”

Ruined lives

A priest at St. Walter in the Morgan Park neighborhood had been accused of sexually abusing three teen girls in 1970. Two of those survivors chronicled the sexual touching, kissing and other inappropriate acts in a letter to the archdiocese, according to the attorney general office’s report.

“I didn’t know if it was wrong or not because he’s a priest and I thought I might be helping him,” one girl wrote in a letter, warning church leaders that the priest had become more involved in the parish’s teen club.

A monsignor investigated and “gathered there was guilt there,” in a summary of findings to the cardinal in March 1970.

The accused priest insisted he “was the one who was ‘abused’ ” and accused the girls of “baseless and insane jealousy,” the attorney general’s office report said. The archdiocese relocated the priest to another church in Round Lake and documents of his misconduct were buried for decades; the priest was not removed from ministry until 2003, the report added.

To Larry Antonsen, a Chicago leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the report was “somewhat of a vindication” and the beginning of accountability.

“I think it’s way underreported,” he added. “I think there’s a whole lot more than that. Maybe double. Maybe triple.”

Antonsen, 76, was molested by an Augustinian priest who taught at St. Rita of Cascia High School on the Southwest Side, where Antonsen was then a sophomore, he said. They had taken a day trip to Milwaukee, and the priest decided they would stay in a motel because it was too late to return home.

Like in his own abuse experience, Antonsen expects statutes of limitation will prevent legal action against many of the priests newly named as child sexual abusers. Still, he hopes the report brings more abuse to light and leads to accountability — not just for abusers, but for church leaders who hid the abuse, he said.

“They flat-out lied about it. I mean flat-out lied,” Antonsen said of the church leaders.

He shared hope that people would listen to the stories of survivors with open minds. The attorney general’s online report includes extensive narratives detailing the abuse survivors suffered.

When Antonsen was sexually abused, his relationships were damaged and he stopped doing things he loved to do. He and the around 20 people he regularly discusses personal priest abuse stories with through SNAP have never gotten apologies, help or contact from the Archdiocese of Chicago, he said.

“It’s ruined people’s lives. And for us, there’s no recourse,” Antonsen said. “And they can’t really give any of that back. They can’t.”

Attorney Mark McKenna, whose firm Hurley McKenna & Mertz has handled hundreds of sex abuse claims against the church, said they are cross-referencing the new names revealed in the report to see if any are related to new clients. McKenna praised the report, which he said provides a full accounting of the depth of the decades-old scandal.

”I’m not surprised at all,” McKenna said of the report’s revelations. “They have always tried to use technicalities to hide and avoid responsibility of those affiliated with religious orders within their jurisdiction. Finally, (the church was) forced to associate these religious order priests with the archbishop and bishops around the state. It was always so unfair and such a bad faith attempt to avoid responsibility.”

‘Damage that simply cannot be undone’

One sexual abuse survivor interviewed during the investigation recalled the tactics of a “serial predator” priest who abused more than 15 boys in the 1960s and 1970s; the priest would often take the boys to dinner, movies and concerts, as well as give them alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, according to the report.

“He groomed us to feel like we were special,” the victim said in the report. “He would take care of us and provide us greater opportunity than we would have without him.”

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois issued a statement that the attorney general’s report is “a reminder that some clergy in the church committed shameful and disgraceful sins against innocent victim survivors and did damage that simply cannot be undone.”

Paprocki said that changes have been made to conduct background checks for everyone who works and volunteers in the church, to report allegations to government authorities, and for a lay review board to make recommendations regarding the withdrawal of clergy.

“The changes our diocese enacted have proven to be effective as we are not aware of a single incident of sexual abuse of a minor by clergy alleged to have occurred in this diocese in nearly 20 years.”

The Diocese of Springfield also has listed substantiated cases of sexual abuse of a minor by clergy in the diocese at dio.org/promise.

Bishop David Malloy of the Diocese of Rockford issued a statement that the diocese has cooperated with all investigations, and apologizing for the pain endured by victim survivors, but said there “inaccuracies” in the report.

For example, despite allegations of known abusers ministering in the Rockford diocese, the statement read, “There is no cleric or lay person in ministry or employment in the Diocese of Rockford with a credible accusation against him or her.”

Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, a Boston-based advocacy group that has tracked the Catholic hierarchy’s record in dealing with priest misconduct, urged church leaders to add the names revealed in the report to the dioceses’ own lists and be transparent about their assignments and allegations.

”The Illinois report does an excellent job of telling the stories of many accused priests, based on in-depth interviews with survivors and church personnel and an extensive review of church documents,” McKiernan said in a statement. “Now is the time for the dioceses to release those documents to the public.”

He added: ”In the past, the Chicago archdiocese and the Joliet diocese had released some documents under pressure from litigation, but those documents were heavily redacted. The six Illinois dioceses must release the files of all priests and religious with substantiated allegations of child abuse.”