At an anti-abortion rally last Sunday, Cardinal Francis George proclaimed to a downtown crowd of thousands that culture and societies can change.
"Because you tell the truth, the pro-life movement can come in from the cold," said Chicago's shivering archbishop, who later headed to Washington, D.C., for the 41st annual March for Life.
George was still in the nation's capital Tuesday when the truth came out in Chicago about how he and his predecessors struggled to manage the clergy sex abuse crisis in the nation's third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese. That day, thousands of pages of secret church documents were released as part of a court settlement, showing how leaders of the local church for the past half-century failed to protect children from abusive priests.
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As the cardinal left Sunday's rally, he told the Tribune that the mistakes were in the past. But now George must face a painful present, with his flock stunned by the severity of his missteps and those of his predecessors Joseph Bernardin and John Cody.
"We're disappointed and saddened," said Ald. Tim Cullerton, 38th, a parishioner at Our Lady of Victory parish on the North Side.
Before last week's document release, George admitted mishandling the case of convicted child molester Daniel McCormack, and those files remain sealed. But the newly-released documents chronicle how George and those under his leadership failed to take proper steps in the case of the Rev. Joseph Bennett, a priest accused of molesting two sisters from 1967 to 1973 at St. John de la Salle in Chicago. About a dozen more allegations have surfaced since.
With George's retirement around the corner — he submitted his mandatory letter of resignation two years ago — the cardinal now faces a deadline to restore lost trust and cement his legacy.
"Securing a legacy has to be central to what it is that a cardinal does," said law professor Timothy Lytton, the author of "Holding Bishops Accountable."
"It's not just the bishop's personal legacy. It's the church's legacy, what it is the church is bequeathing to future generations," Lytton said. "This has damaged the church's public role and ability to build a legacy."
The documents — in loose alphabetical order, heavily redacted, incomplete and jumbled in places — included information on 30 of the more than 65 archdiocesan priests with allegations substantiated by the church through its own review process. The archdiocese said it is developing a method to release the rest of the files.
Cullerton wants the other documents disclosed as soon as possible and attributes the delay to the fear of additional costly litigation.
"By and large people would like to see this get resolved and move on and have this activity cease," Cullerton said. "Now that the church has taken this step — I can't say they've completely opened the records — they'll rethink the situation going forward. In the spirit of the Catholic Church, first you should confess your sins and seek forgiveness. That's the only way they will heal — full disclosure and full openness."
Carolyn Larson, 42, who attends Our Lady of Victory in the Portage Park neighborhood, notes an irony in the archdiocese threatening to shut down her son's school in an effort to close a $10 million budget gap. She views the church's financial woes as the consequence of not protecting children in the first place.
"I feel extremely sad about what happened with those children and how the priests were not quite handled in a strict enough manner," she said. "Just the fact that the archdiocese seems to be spending so much money on that. Who's suffering because of that? The children."
Have we lost faith in the archdiocese?" she added. "Yes, to a certain level. I'm disappointed."
The documents alter the legacy of George's predecessors too, especially that of Bernardin, recognized for his compassion and credited with instituting model reforms for the American church on priest sex abuse.
According to the records, Bernardin gave the Rev. Joseph Fitzharris a new parish assignment in 1988, just months after a judge sentenced the priest to one year of court supervision for sexually abusing a 15-year-old.
And when the late cardinal removed the Rev. Bob Mayer from St. Odilo Catholic Church in Berwyn for disregarding prior warnings, he reprimanded him for putting himself and the church at risk. The letter did not mention the risk to children.
"I was a little disappointed in Bernardin," said Tom McQuillan, a parishioner at St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights. "I thought he was more on top of it. … I didn't get the impression that they were trying to shield the church as much as they were trying to protect the guys that were their friends."
"Times were different," he added. "He was probably hurt that this was going on. ... God made us all with faults and sometimes people fail."
Msgr. Ken Velo, Bernardin's executive assistant who initialed many of the cardinal's memos, said Bernardin still deserves credit for establishing reforms on handling sex abuse. Velo recalled Mayer's eventual arrest for child sex abuse as a turning point for the cardinal.
"He realized the enormity of it and he wanted to deal with it," Velo said.
Tom Kinasz, 56, a parishioner at St. Emily Catholic Church in Mount Prospect, said he had worked closely with George and believed the cardinal sincerely wanted to eradicate sex abuse in the church. Kinasz also takes a sympathetic view of Bernardin's struggles with the issue.
"We look at somebody we think of as a pillar of sensitivity. Perhaps he's teaching from the grave," Kinasz said. "No matter how compassionate or empathetic someone can be, mistakes can be made and you have to be vigilant. It's unfortunate and disappointing. He was a great man in our archdiocese. But he's human."