Chicago Archdiocese Releases Internal Documents

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Newly released internal church documents indicate that for decades, top leaders in Chicago's Catholic Archdiocese tried to hide allegations of sexual abuse by priests. The documents were released on Tuesday as part of a settlement agreement with victims of 30 abusive priests. Those survivors now accuse church leaders of orchestrating a cover-up.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yet another document released sheds light on the Catholic Church. Thousands of pages of internal church documents show that for decades top leaders in Chicago's Catholic archdiocese tried to hide allegations of sexual abuse by priests. The documents were released yesterday as part of a settlement agreement between the archdiocese and victims. And as NPR's David Schaper reports, the survivors now accuse church leaders of orchestrating a cover-up.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Forty-eight year old Angel Santiago is a little anxious as he waits in a downtown Chicago hotel meeting room with his wife and with several other survivors of clerical sexual abuse. Within minutes, for the first time, documents detailing decades of criminal sexual acts committed by 30 priests in the Chicago archdiocese would be going public. And Santiago is a little apprehensive.

ANGEL SANTIAGO: For me, it just brings back a lot of horror and a lot of nightmares.

SCHAPER: Nightmares about Santiago's once trusted parish priest, Father Joseph Fitzharris, and what he did to him more than 30 years ago. Santiago says it's taken him decades to begin to recover.

SANTIAGO: I just want to make sure that whatever is on these documents doesn't really affect me or bring me back down to where I was.

SCHAPER: But in that hushed voice, Angel Santiago says the release of these documents is critical to helping expose the deliberate steps taken by Chicago's most revered Catholic leaders to protect abusive priests and the church's reputation, rather than protect children. Attorney Marc Pearlman represents several clerical abuse survivors.

MARC PEARLMAN: It shows a pattern of repeated abuse, repeated allegations, the archdiocese working hard to keep that all bottled up and secret, and then transferring these gentlemen from one parish to another so they can abuse again.

SCHAPER: Pearlman says the paper trail implicates the Chicago church hierarchy, including the late Cardinals John Cody and Joseph Bernardin, as well as current Cardinal Francis George and his handling of recent abuse cases. None of the documents reveal any effort by archdiocesan leaders to turn over accusations or the abusers to law enforcement. Here's another of the victims' attorneys, Jeff Anderson.

JEFF ANDERSON: It's ugly, it's sorrowful, it's painful, it's disgusting, and it discloses complicity in criminal conduct by top officials.

SCHAPER: In a statement, the archdiocese acknowledges that, quote, leaders made some decisions decades ago that are now difficult to justify, but those decisions were made, quote, in accordance with the prevailing knowledge at the time. In the past 40 years, the statement continues, society has evolved in dealing with matters related to abuse. Cardinal Francis George apologized for the abuse in a letter sent to parishes last week, and he has acknowledged that mistakes were made in past. But the apology means little to Jim Laarveld, whose son was abused by a priest.

JIM LAARVELD: They have done nothing in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and that probably hurts more than anything else, because being brought up a Catholic and the faith and trust you have, and then to be disappointed like this and have your child abused like this, there's no excuse for it, I don't care what they say.

SCHAPER: Laarveld and other survivors point out that not one Catholic Church official in Chicago or elsewhere has ever been demoted, fired or otherwise disciplined in the sex abuse scandal. They're hoping that the release of these documents, with more files on at least 35 more abusive priests still to come, can lead to some church leaders eventually being held accountable. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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