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Five years after Dallas, the scandal continues in Chicago July 03, 2007

In an Illinois court yesterday, a priest of the Chicago archdiocese was sentenced to a 5-year prison term after pleading guilty to molesting several boys.

At first glance this might seem to be one more in a long, ugly sequence of cases involving clerical abuse. But the high-profile case of Father Daniel McCormack merits special attention because it involves abuse and concealment that came to light nearly five years after the US bishops adopted their program to stop abuse, in an archdiocese that has boasted of its compliance with the "Dallas charter."

It is bad enough that Father McCormack fondled boys at a parish and school on Chicago's West Side. What makes the case truly horrifying is that officials of the Chicago archdiocese were apparently aware of accusations against the priest, yet allowed him to remain in active ministry. "The sexual abuse of children is a sin and a crime," Cardinal Francis George said, in a statement released after the McCormack was sentenced. "When the abuser is a priest, the whole Church is affected. Such misconduct by a priest or anyone else associated with the archdiocese cannot be tolerated." True enough. But it was tolerated-- or at least the allegations were not aggressively pursued.

The policies adopted by the US bishops-- the Dallas charter-- were designed to prevent exactly this sort of passive response by archdiocesan officials. In the McCormack case those policies failed. The abusive priest remained in his parish, even after the allegations were raised. And the archdiocesan officials who allowed him to remain in office have not-- at least, not yet-- suffered the consequences of their negligence.

The Chicago Sun-Times observes:

Top leaders in the Archdiocese of Chicago responsible for complaints about predatory priests kept their positions or rose in the church in the aftermath of the Rev. Daniel McCormack's 2006 arrest, according to archdiocesan reports and interviews.
Vicar General George Rassas was elevated to auxiliary bishop. Chancellor Jimmy Lago was named the primary point person on child abuse cases. Leaders from the offices of Vicar for Priests to Protection of Children and Youth stayed in key posts.
And Cardinal Francis George -- whose handling of the McCormack matter led to calls for his resignation -- appears poised to be elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Dallas charter was adopted to save Catholic children from administrative misconduct. The Chicago archdiocese was in compliance with the Dallas charter. Yet the administrative misconduct continued, and those responsible have not been punished. Something is seriously wrong with this system.

And anyone who looks carefully at the Dallas charter can discern exactly what is wrong.

Each year, under the terms of the Dallas charter, the Catholic dioceses submit to an "audit" of their compliance. But the auditors do not have subpoena power; they receive only the information that diocesan officials give them. If the officials chose to ignore or cover up some allegations of impropriety, the auditors never learn about it-- or perhaps, as in this case, they learn about it only when the matter emerges in the secular courts.

Essentially, the Dallas charter calls for self-policing by the American bishops and the members of their chancery staffs. But remember, the sex-abuse crisis erupted because the bishops and their aides were concealing evidence of priestly abuse. The bishops forfeited the trust of their people, and then they devised a system that is reliable only insofar as we can trust them.

The McCormack case illustrates an unhappy but undeniable fact: the Dallas charter doesn't work.

Or rather, the Dallas charter doesn't prevent the sexual abuse of children. What it does, instead, is provide bishops with an opportunity to deflect criticism, by saying that they have complied with the terms of the policy.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz has been denounced by activist groups because he has chosen not to comply with the Dallas charter. Instead Bishop Bruskewitz has taken the responsibility to ensure the safety of children personally. He is criticized not because abuse has been prevalent in Lincoln-- on the contrary, it has been rare-- but because he has refused to play along with the pretense of a superficial audit.

In Pittsburgh, parish workers have complained bitterly against the new requirements that they go through the demeaning process of fingerprinting and a criminal-background check in order continue doing volunteer work for the diocese. (The Dallas charter recommends that sort of tough scrutiny for lay volunteers, even though the program was a response to clerical abuse.) The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the head of a prominent victims' group sympathizes with the angry volunteers:

Barbara Blaine, SNAP's founder and president, would rather see church's focus put on holding bishops accountable for the predators they allowed to stay in ministry. "Rather than looking at the heart of the problem, they create these diversions," she said.

Blaine is absolutely right; she realizes that the Dallas charter provides more protection for bishops than for children. But then why has she joined the critics of Bishop Bruskewitz, one of the few American prelates who has chosen to accept responsibility and hold himself accountable?

The audits, the background checks, the educational programs-- all can be rightly described as "diversions." Until bishops and their administrative aides are held personally accountable for their response to sex-abuse allegations, no charter and no program can restore public confidence.

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