CHICAGO – The release of 6,000 pages of documents by the Archdiocese of Chicago raised hopes Wednesday among sex abuse victims and their lawyers that new light will be shed on what the Catholic Church knew and did – or didn’t do – about decades of allegations against priests.
The nation’s third-largest archdiocese handed over to victims’ attorneys a trove of complaints, personnel documents and other files for about 30 priests with substantiated abuse allegations, as part of settlements with the victims.
The lawyers, who have fought for years to hold the church accountable for concealing crimes and sometimes reassigning priests to positions where they continued to molest children, said they expect to make the documents public next week.
While church officials called the agreement an effort to “bring healing to the victims and their families,” the victims said the disclosures and transparency were the only way to learn from what happened, make sure it is never repeated and help both them and the church recover and move forward.
“Hopefully, it will help others out there struggling to come forward and get help,” said Joe Iacono, 62, a Springfield resident who was abused in the early 1960s while he was a student at a Catholic school outside Chicago.
Iacono said he was hoping the documents include records relating to the priest who abused him.
A ranking official for the archdiocese, Bishop Francis Kane, opened a Wednesday news conference explaining the document release by apologizing for the abuse.
“I have seen firsthand the pain and suffering of the victims and their families,” Kane said. “What we are doing now, I hope that it will bring healing and hope to the people that have been affected by these terrible sins and crimes.”
Archdiocese attorney John O’Malley warned that the documents will be “upsetting.” ‘’The information is painful; it’s difficult to read, even without the benefit of hindsight,” O’Malley said.
The documents are similar to recent disclosures by other dioceses in the U.S. that showed how the church shielded priests and failed to report child sex abuse to authorities. Church officials said most of the abuse occurred before 1988 and none occurred after 1996.
Cardinal Francis George, who has led the archdiocese since 1997, did not attend the news conference. But on Sunday he released a letter of apology to parishioners that said all incidents were reported to civil authorities and resulted in settlements.
In fact, the archdiocese has paid about $100 million to settle sex abuse claims, including those against Father Daniel McCormack, who was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to abusing five children while he was a parish priest and a teacher at a Catholic school.
Files on McCormack will not be among those released; they have been sealed by a judge because of pending court cases, said attorney Marc Pearlman, who has helped represent about 200 victims of clergy abuse in the Chicago area. He said he and St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeff Anderson will re-release the McCormack documents that they have.
Many of the accused priests are dead, and the documents will include only 30 of 65 priests against whom the archdiocese says it has credible allegations of abuse. That is because settlements that required the disclosures involved just those 30 priests, Pearlman said. O’Malley said the archdiocese will review and develop a process to release documents on the other cases.
Iacono was abused while he was a student at a Catholic school in North Lake, Ill., west of Chicago. He told The Associated Press that Father Thomas Kelly, who is dead but whom the church has acknowledged abused children, took an active interest in a group of boys, lifting weights with them and inviting them to spend the night at the rectory.
“It was his way of weeding us out and separating us from the rest of the class and making us feel special [so he could] take liberties with us,” said Iacono, who said he tried to forget about the abuse until his daughter was born years later.
Peter Isely, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it’s important for all Chicago-area Catholics to read the until-now “hidden” documents.
“It’s physical, material evidence and truth,” he said. “I can’t tell you how important this is to victims of trauma. ... It’s something that can’t be denied and wished away.”