America News Analysis

After a devastating report, the blame game begins in Chicago


On December 20, the Attorney General of Illinois released a devastating report on sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy of the Archdiocese of Chicago. It was an all-too-familiar profile of lives destroyed by members of Christ’s holy priesthood. “Survivors reported battling alcoholism, drug use, mental health crises, and suicide attempts,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan wrote. “They spoke of failed careers, broken marriages and strained relationships with loved ones, including their own children. Frequently, survivors shared that the abuse they suffered as children prevented them from ‘living up to their full potential’.”

The long-term effects of the abuse, as Madigan’s department reported, never quite left the victims. “Even survivors who have gone on to lead productive lives still carry this burden,” she said. “Many chillingly detailed how they followed the movements of their abusers, as the clergy were transferred around Catholic parishes.” Many couldn’t rest until their abusers were completely out of the picture. “They often kept track of their abusers through the clergy’s retirement and death. The stories are heartbreaking.”

Indeed, they are. And they are likely to come to widespread attention, as they took place in an archdiocese which is constantly in the public eye. A series of high-profile churchmen have been archbishops of Chicago. Currently, it is Cardinal Blase Cupich, a close ally of Pope Francis who is widely regarded as leader of the American bishops’ progressive faction. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in his shocking “Testimony”, claimed that Cupich’s appointment to Chicago was “orchestrated” by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and Cardinals Óscar Andrés Rodríguez and Donald Wuerl, who were, he alleged, “united by a wicked pact of abuse by [McCarrick], and at least of cover-up of abuses by the other two”. None of the prelates has commented directly on these allegations.

The Catholic News Agency has reported that Cardinals Wuerl and Cupich drew up a controversial joint plan, presented by Cupich and submitted to the US bishops at November’s meeting in Baltimore. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had intended to introduce lay-led investigations into claims of sexual abuse by bishops. Instead, Cupich’s proposal recommended that claims of impropriety by archbishops be looked into by their subordinate bishops, and vice-versa.

Cupich has strongly denied that Wuerl was involved in writing the plan.

The Cupich scheme has divided opinion, irrespective of who drew it up; and the new scrutiny on Illinois may be seen by some as a chance to criticise the current archbishop. Yet Cupich was only appointed to Chicago in 2014 – so this is a much broader story about the archdiocese’s history, under a series of leaders.

Any reckoning must begin with Cardinal John Cody, who served as Chicago’s senior prelate from 1965 to 1982. Many forget that, during his tenure, he occupied a position of unrivalled authority in the US Church. In 1961, the State of Illinois passed legislation deeming Cody the “corporation sole” of the archdiocese. That means that he, as the archbishop, personally owned all of the Church’s assets in the diocese.

Cody was often regarded as a conservative. One journalist has claimed that the cardinal would fly into a rage if an editor published photographs of a priest without a Roman collar. Yet his legacy has been overshadowed by allegations of financial misconduct, with newspapers claiming that he had diverted funds to his friend Helen Dolan Wilson. (She denied the allegations.) It was also under Cody’s tenure that the first allegations emerge of abusive priests being reshuffled.

Next was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was widely popular during his tenure from 1982 to 1996. “In his prime, Joseph Bernardin was arguably the most powerful Catholic prelate in American history,” the eminent Vatican-watcher George Weigel has written. Bernardin advanced a “consistent ethic of life”, based on the belief that pro-life activism should not be disproportionately emphasised over issues more appealing to political progressives, such as income inequality and healthcare access.

Bernardin found himself in the middle of a posthumous scandal last year centring on a sexual diversity rainbow banner that was said to have been hung by the cardinal during the parish’s 1991 inaugural Mass. Last September, the pastor and parishioners of Resurrection Parish burnt the banner, which they regarded as symbolic of Bernardin’s (and other archbishops’) tolerance of a culture of moral laxity.

Next was Cardinal Francis George, who served from 1997 until 2014. George was a hero among American conservatives and a friend of John Paul II who was elected president of the USCCB in 2007. In 2014 the cardinal released 6,000 pages documenting impropriety by 30 priests; most of the abuse took place under his and Bernardin’s watch.

Regardless of whether the Attorney General’s office will release new information pertaining to the crisis, abuse took place in Chicago during the reign of both “conservative” and “liberal” prelates. No doubt both factions will take this opportunity for partisan point-scoring. Meanwhile, the question remains: are predator priests still living in the archdiocese?