Illinois' attorney general’s office Wednesday accused the Catholic Church of dramatically lowballing the scope of allegations of clergy sex abuse, saying her investigators found at least 500 additional accusations against priests and clergy — compared with the 185 cases the church has found credible.
Lisa Madigan’s office acknowledged Wednesday that a charge that has been found credible is not the same thing as a simple accusation. However, she alleged in a statement that a probe her office opened into the Church in August is finding that Catholic leaders are failing to dig deep into the guilt of their clerics. The probe “has revealed that allegations frequently have not been adequately investigated by the dioceses or not investigated at all,” the statement said.
Some state Catholic leaders, under siege during a year of global scandal over bishops' handling of abuse cases, pushed back. The crux of Madigan’s announcement was unfair and “false,” said William Kunkel, counsel for the Chicago archdiocese.
“The idea that clergy sexual abuse of minors is more extensive than [we] reported is just false,” he said. “We don’t see lawyers, doctors, schools publishing lists like this,” he said of allegations not found to be reasonably credible. “It’s not fair to put out a list of people accused, any more than it would be fair to put out a list of accused reporters.”
Madigan’s office is one of more than a dozen to open state investigations this year into Catholic handling of abuses cases. But Wednesday, some experts said, seemed to up the ante because it pushed on a controversial topic that has angered Catholics from left to right — whether the Church, under fire since the early 2000s, is really coming clean with its lists. Scandals at the top of the church in 2018 have resulted in a slew of dioceses and religious orders releasing their lists of credibly accused priests.
The problem: There is no standard within the Catholic Church for what constitutes “credible" accusations, and many Catholics and members of the public are skeptical that church leaders are coming forward to civil authorities and the public with everything they have.
Madigan, said longtime survivor advocate Terry McKiernan, is trying to force the church to produce lists that are more transparent and meaningful. Even in recent weeks, McKiernan said Wednesday, some lists around the country are being shown to not have included names that they should have.
“There’s a big debate about what ‘credible’ means, but these lists are clearly incomplete in a number of ways. Or at least there is lag before names are added,” he said. “Let’s face it, an allegation is an allegation, and very few are unsubstantiated if the diocese does the work to look into it."
Dioceses are dragging their feet on substantiating allegations "because they don’t want to acknowledge the crisis they’re in, ”McKiernan said.
Madigan’s announcement comes as the Catholic Church is being forced in a way it never has to address the crisis, in particular the lack of accountability that exists for the bishops who manage the Catholic Church. The U.S. bishops have an unprecedented retreat planned for the first week of January, and Pope Francis has convened a first-of-its-kind meeting in February. The primary issue, which has come to the fore in a year with one bishop after another losing his position, is how to bring more transparency and accountability to church leaders.
Earlier Wednesday, the Vatican announced that a Los Angeles bishop was being removed after a review of a child sex abuse charge from the 1990s.
Since Madigan’s probe began in August, her spokeswoman said, the six Illinois dioceses have had to add 45 new names to their various lists of credibly accused priests. This reflects a lack of candor, said the office’s communications director, Maura Possley, and it’s why Madigan publicized the number of accusations.
Asked if it was fair to compare these two separate buckets of cases — the church’s list of priests it deemed credibly accused and the AG’s additional list of accused priests — Possley said it was.
Madigan “felt it was important for transparency purposes and for survivors to know she’s taking this seriously,” Possley said. “She has said from the get-go, she thinks they have a moral obligation to provide a full and accurate accounting of child sexual abuse.”
James Towey, president of Ave Maria University, said Madigan’s report — and those of other state attorneys general — should be clearer as to which allegations are old and which are new. That said, Towey called Madigan’s preliminary report “further evidence that the scale of the scandal is scandalous. I think the number are shocking.”
Cardinals, bishops and other top clergy say they want to make amends and help victims heal, but the church’s glacial pace of revealing allegations runs counter to that stated goal, said Towey, who was a lawyer and a Bush administration official before taking the helm at Ave Maria University, one of the nation’s most prominent conservative Catholic colleges.
"It won’t start until all the names are out there. The church has to clean up its act,” Towey said. “The fact is — this is a mess of the Church’s creation and all of us, laity and ordained, have to come together and fix it.”