Catholic dioceses in Illinois under-reported number of abusive priests, state finds
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Six Catholic dioceses in Illinois had disclosed the names of 103 priests and other clergy who were “substantiated” as child sex abusers five years ago, when the state began an investigation into the problem, according to Attorney General Kwame Raoul.
A 700-page report that his office released Tuesday, however, lists 451 clergy who allegedly abused 1,997 children in the state.
“This means that our investigation led to the disclosure of 348 more clerics than prior to our investigation,” Raoul said at a press conference in Chicago that also was live-streamed.
Former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who held the office for 16 years, had launched the investigation. Raoul promised to continue her work when he took over in 2019.
At the press conference, Raoul attempted to show he had no “personal ax to grind” by telling reporters that his Haitian mother was a devout Catholic who raised him in the church and prayed every night and that he and his wife sent their children to Catholic schools.
Then the attorney general presented a harsh assessment of how Illinois dioceses had handled allegations against clergy for 70 years.
“Decades of Catholic leadership decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight,” he said. “And because the statute of limitations has frequently expired, many survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic clerics will never see justice in a legal sense.
“But it is my sincere hope that this report will shine light on those who violated their positions of power and trust to abuse innocent children and on the men in church leadership who covered up that abuse.”
Raoul said Catholic leaders in Illinois cooperated with the investigation by providing more than 100,000 pages of documents and that they already have implemented significant improvements in their dioceses.
The 25 attorneys and other state employees who worked on the report were challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, a ransomware attack and the emotional aspect of the subject matter, according to Raoul.
But the attorney general identified the “courageous” personal accounts by survivors as the most important factor.
“Over the course of this investigation, my office received more than 600 confidential contacts from survivors through emails, letters, in-person interviews and phone calls,” he said.
The Catholic Diocese of Belleville, which experienced one of the first major public scandals related to child sex abuse in the 1990s, emailed a statement after the press conference.
The statement noted that church leaders were still reviewing the report, which includes five sections that are highly detailed.
Among the Belleville Diocese’s statement bullet points:
- The Diocese acknowledges that several decades ago certain of its priests engaged in inexcusable sexual misconduct that caused serious harm to children.
- The Diocese humbly and unreservedly apologizes for its inadequate response to some of those abuse allegations in past decades. The Diocese prays for the continued recovery of all survivors of such abuse.
- The Diocese has, however, made great strides over the past three decades in correcting its past mistakes. The Diocese pledges, moreover, that those past mistakes have not been — and will not in the future be — repeated.
- The Diocese is fully committed to continue protecting the safety of all children entrusted to its care and doing everything it can to prevent them from suffering any form of abuse.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) also responded to Raoul’s press conference.
“It’s tragic that once again, hundreds of church officials concealed thousands of child sex crimes yet none of these ‘enablers’ face any consequences,” according to its statement. “Illinois lawmakers must pass new laws that help law enforcement pursue those who hid or help child molesters.
“Raoul repeatedly characterizes wrongdoing by bishops as ‘failures’ when in fact they are often deliberate refusals to do what’s right.
“Virtually all of the (attorney general’s report) recommendations are simple, common sense steps that any official who genuinely cares about kids would have adopted long ago,” the SNAP statement continued.
“Last year two abusers were apparently quietly added to Belleville’s ‘credibly accused’ clerics list — Raymond Prybis and Francis Skube — last year. Bishop McGovern must publicly announce news like this, rather than sneak it onto his website without alerting his flock.”
Catholic leaders in Illinois had taken preemptive steps in anticipation of the attorney general’s report on Tuesday.
All six of the state’s Catholic dioceses emailed a joint statement to media organizations on Thursday, summarizing the common processes they follow when handling allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
The processes include publishing names of accused clergy; maintaining internal offices and independent boards to deal with allegations promptly; notifying civil authorities; establishing victim-assistance ministries; and conducting abuse-prevention programs.
“Over the past four years, the Illinois dioceses have worked with the Office of the Illinois Attorney General to improve the transparency and effectiveness of their policies,” the statement read.
“Prompted by the Attorney General’s investigation, the dioceses have critically reviewed current policies and implemented certain recommended changes to their existing reporting to the public to further increase transparency.”
Also on Thursday, the Belleville Diocese sent the BND a separate statement of its own history and practices.
The statement noted that Belleville in 1993 became one of the first Catholic dioceses in the United States to implement a written Child Protection Policy to lessen or prevent abuse and to form a lay-majority independent review board to consider allegations.
“For more than 30 years, the Diocese of Belleville has been a national leader in developing policies to address the unmitigated evils of child sexual abuse,” the statement read.
The BND published its first story on child sex abuse in the Belleville Diocese in February 1993. Subsequent stories revealed that accused priests had been allowed to continue in ministry, and some had been moved to other parishes after families made allegations.
By 2002, the diocese had removed 15 priests and one deacon from ministry due to “credible” allegations and then Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory was leading the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“(The conference) approved and implemented the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which established nationwide measures to better protect children from sexual abuse,” last week’s statement from the Belleville Diocese read.
Terri Maddox is reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.