LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a new leader. Today, the Bishops chose Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as their president. After the sex-abuse scandal broke five years ago, Cardinal George led the push for a zero-tolerance policy against abusive priests, but one high-profile case raises questions about how well the Chicago Archdiocese has done.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Five years ago, Cardinal George urged his fellow bishops to repent and scrub the church clean of scandal. His policies for Chicago became the model for reform nationwide. George himself traveled to Rome to persuade the Vatican to accept them. Jimmy Lago, the chancellor of the archdiocese, says those policies are simple. When a minor reports abuse, the church tells the police and yanks the priest from his job.
Mr. JIMMY LAGO (Chancellor, Archdiocese of Chicago): We don't wait for the review board, we don't wait for anybody. When that allegation comes in, the interim action is taken to ask the priest to step aside while we do an investigation.
HAGERTY: That's the theory. But in the case of Father Daniel McCormack, those policies failed.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) You and I been crying.
HAGERTY: St. Agatha Parish lies in the poor section of Chicago. For the children here, the church and its school are a refuge from the dangerous streets. It was here that Daniel McCormack lived and worked. He was a young dynamic priest who asked to serve in this poor community, teaching algebra and coaching basketball.
Unidentified Woman #1: I don't really care for that priest.
HAGERTY: This mother, who asked that we not use her name, sent her son to the parish school in the fall of 2003. She quickly noticed a bond between her eight-year-old and the priest. The family later moved away for a year and returned to Chicago in the summer of 2005. The mother says, as they discussed where to send their children to school, her son grew agitated.
Unidentified Woman #1: He came in the room, he was crying and shaking. He said, mom. I said, what's wrong. He just kept crying, and said something bad happened. That priest, Father Dan, he molested me.
HAGERTY: The boy told her that at least twice in December 2003, McCormack cornered him, put his hands down the boy's pants and fondled him. When she heard this, the mother called Leah McCluskey, the official in the archdiocese in charge of abuse investigations. She still has the phone records.
Unidentified Woman #1: I have her number on here too. I spoke with her. I talked to her 22 minutes.
HAGERTY: She says McCluskey promised to investigate. Under the zero-tolerance policies that Cardinal George himself promoted, the archdiocese was required at this point to call the police. According to an outside investigation commissioned later by the archdiocese, they did not. The mother also told the school principal who failed to call the police. So she filed a complaint herself. The police arrested Father McCormack but released him for a lack of evidence. That was August 30th, 2005. A few weeks later, the mother checked back with the investigator at the archdiocese.
Unidentified Woman #1: She said we're on that now. We took him out of the church. And I have friends that are Catholic that have been attending that church. They say, well, Father Dan gave a great service. He's not gone anywhere. And I was, like, what?
HAGERTY: McCluskey could not be reached for a comment. Instead of removing McCormack, the archdiocese told him to stay away from children. Unfortunately, no one told Barbara Westrick.
Ms. BARBARA WESTRICK (Principal, Our Lady of the Westside School): The first thing they should have done was informed me - as the principal of the school - that he shouldn't be teaching, that he shouldn't be coaching basketball, and that he shouldn't be with kids. None of that was told to me, none - ever.
HAGERTY: According to that outside investigation, church officials told McCormack's fellow priest to monitor McCormack. That is to keep him from bringing boys into the rectory. But McCormack continued to teach, coach basketball, and even take children out of state on shopping trips. Cardinal George declined to be interviewed. Chancellor Jimmy Lago won't discuss the case except to say this:
Mr. LAGO: Bits and pieces of information that a lot of people had at that time didn't get put together, and a lot of really good people who are committed to the safety of kids didn't come to this smack-bang, hit-between-the-eyeballs conclusion that he needed to be removed. So I think that's about all I can say at the moment.
HAGERTY: Let's look at those bits and pieces of information uncovered by the outside investigator hired by the church: 1992, two men and one minor accused McCormack of sexually abusing them while he was in seminary. A letter was put in McCormack's file. That letter has disappeared.
1999, a nun at the school where McCormack taught tells the archdiocese that McCormack allegedly abused a fourth-grade boy. She later writes a letter and delivers it to the archdiocese. Church officials say they never received it.
September 2003, a woman calls the archdiocese and reports that her grandson was molested by McCormack. She left her phone number but not her name. At no time did the archdiocese call the police. The outside investigator concluded that violated state criminal law. Plaintiff's attorney Mark Pearlman says the church had a clear duty.
Mr. MARK PEARLMAN (Plaintiff's Attorney): You call the police and you get rid of them. They've done just the opposite. They've covered it up and they've kept them within the ranks.
HAGERTY: After Father McCormick was arrested in August 2005, the archdiocese's independent review board got involved. That's a group of layman and clergy who look into these cases. Several sources confirmed that the review board sent a letter to Cardinal George in October 2005. It told him to remove McCormack from ministry. Jimmy Lago says it was not clear-cut.
Mr. LAGO: There was never a formal recommendation from the review board. We were still trying to get this case in-house.
HAGERTY: Mark Pearlman says it may not have been a formal recommendation but it could not have been clearer.
Mr. PEARLMAN: We have evidence that the cardinal got a recommendation to remove McCormack and did not do so. I mean, he ultimately did, but I just don't know as we sit here today how many kids were abused between the fall of 2005 and January of 2006 when he was finally removed.
HAGERTY: There's at least one, a 10-year-old boy who began spending time with Father McCormack in the fall of 2005.
Unidentified Woman #2: You know, I felt I don't have to worry because he's now here at the church. And I know about him being at church, he's all right.
HAGERTY: His mother, who also asked that her name not be used, says around Christmas time that year, McCormack molested her son. The boy stayed silent, but a few weeks later a third boy came forward.
Ms. WESTRICK: My assistant principal called me and said we got a problem.
HAGERTY: Principal Barbara Westrick immediately called the parents, the police and the archdiocese. McCormack was arrested January 20th. In March 2006, only after McCormack's arrest and 14 years after the first complaint, Cardinal George publicly apologized.
Cardinal FRANCIS GEORGE (Archbishop of Chicago): And I should have found at least some fashion in the canons to remove, provisionally, Father McCormack. I take responsibility for not doing that, and I'm saddened by my own failure very much so.
HAGERTY: Still, no top official in the archdiocese has faced any sanctions, and the mother of the second victim wonders why not.
Unidentified Woman #2: If Cardinal George will have done the right thing these other boys would not have been molested. It just, like, he just opened the door for Father Dan to take advantage of other black children.
HAGERTY: Daniel McCormack eventually pleaded guilty to abusing five boys. He's serving a five-year sentence in prison.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.