How the archdiocese is working to prevent abuse

It was 25 years after he was abused by a Catholic priest that Mike Hoffman finally decided to tell someone.

In 2006, he was reading a newspaper article about victims of clergy sex abuse suing the Archdiocese of Chicago. The names of Hoffman's abuser, Robert Mayer, and classmates who were victims, stood out.

The abuse Hoffman experienced as a teenager at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest had become his “normal.”

“That article triggered the fact it wasn't normal at all,” said Hoffman, now 49, a Chicago resident and owner of a Mount Prospect small business. “That was painful abuse.”

Hoffman contacted the archdiocese to tell his story and, months later, was told an internal review board determined sexual misconduct did occur — a judgment accepted by Cardinal Francis George. Hoffman soon after negotiated a financial settlement with the archdiocese, which also agreed to pay for three years of counseling sessions.

Archdiocese officials say they have substantiated 352 abuse cases relating to 66 priests since 1952 and paid out $130 million in settlements to victims. They say the policies and procedures they've implemented in light of the sex abuse scandal can help prevent abuse from happening again. The church's sharpest critics disagree.

Archdiocese's office

Hoffman, who led efforts to create a healing garden next to Holy Family Parish in Chicago in honor of victims of priest sex abuse, today remains a practicing Catholic, serves on his parish's liturgy committee, and is a lector during Sunday Mass.

On the parish level, he's helped the archdiocese implement safeguards — such as sexual abuse awareness training and background checks of every volunteer who works with children — that are now standard practice throughout archdiocesan parishes in Cook and Lake counties.

The archdiocese's Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, established in 2003, is a clearinghouse for the local church's response to matters involving abuse.

A staff of 15 people is responsible for responding to allegations of sex abuse, coordinating a victims assistance ministry, and overseeing compliance standards for clergy, church employees and volunteers.

Jan Slattery, the office's director, emphasized that the procedures have been developed by professionals in the field. A number of staff members have backgrounds in social work. Slattery's background is in higher education administration.

“The attitude here really is one of truth and transparency,” Slattery said. “There aren't clerics sitting here checking on what we're doing.”

Compliance checks

Archdiocese officials say every priest, employee, or volunteer who works with children is required to go through a background check every three years. They must also submit a form to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services annually so the agency can run a check of any new reported abuse or neglect offenses.

In addition to mandated reporter training, clergy, staff and volunteers must take sexual abuse awareness training through the Virtus program, developed by a Catholic risk management group and commonly used by dioceses nationwide. They also must sign a code of conduct.

Children in schools and religious education classes are also given age-appropriate training.

Officials say the compliance standards are in place to educate people on appropriate boundaries, but also for archdiocese officials to discover any hints that abuse could be going on.

“I think we're much more attuned to people's behavior,” Slattery said. “If there's smoke, we try to get right in there now ahead of time. We're not naive. Could this happen again? Yes. But I think our alert systems are far better and in place at this point.”

Victim assistance

In settlement agreements reached with victims, archdiocese officials often agree to fund escrow accounts for victims' counseling sessions and medical prescriptions. The archdiocese's Office of Assistance Ministry connects victims with professional therapists.

Officials say the office has provided services and support to more than 400 victims and their family members since the ministry was established in 1992, following recommendations of a special commission appointed by then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. At the time, it was one of the first victims assistance ministries in the country.

Hoffman said he's benefitted from those services, having participated in retreats and days of reflection with other victims and attended and spoken during the archdiocese's Mass of Atonement and Hope, held annually to promote “healing for child and youth sexual abuse survivors, their families and the church.”

Gary Schoener, a Minnesota-based psychologist for the last 45 years who has treated victims of clergy sex abuse and is an expert on ethics and professional boundaries, said such victims assistance programs are well-intentioned but have the built-in potential of a conflict of interest.

Some victims don't want to reveal themselves or their stories to the church but still want treatment, Schoener said.

He said he believes a better model is the setup his Walk-In Counseling Center, a free mental health treatment clinic in Minneapolis, has with St. John's Abbey, a monastic community in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Anyone abused by a member of the order who doesn't want to disclose information to St. John's can contact the Walk-In Counseling Center anonymously and receive therapy, Schoener said.

“I provide a bridge and a safety zone,” said Schoener, the center's director of consultation and training. “But the arrangement is unusual.”

Responding to claims

Every person who makes an abuse allegation to the Chicago Archdiocese meets with Leah McCluskey, director of the archdiocese's Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review, a division of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth.

If the allegation involves a victim who is currently a minor, McCluskey reports the case to the DCFS. All allegations are reported to the offices of the Cook County and Lake County state's attorneys, officials said.

New allegations involving priests who have resigned or been removed from the priesthood aren't handled by the archdiocese, McCluskey said.

After meeting with the accuser, McCluskey attempts to get a formal response to the allegation from the priest who has been accused and reviews that priest's files. She then reports to a 10-member review board, a group that includes two priests, a deacon, psychiatrist, clinical social worker, hospital administrator and attorneys. The archbishop, in consultation with a nominating committee, appoints members of the review board.

The board determines if an allegation merits additional investigation, and if the archbishop agrees, the matter is often referred to Hillard Heintze, a private investigation firm that looks into the allegation and researches the background of the accused priest and victim. Board members evaluate not only the history of the priest involved but also the credibility of the person coming forward.

“I find the interchange (among board members) helpful because people do come with their areas of expertise. I think we're a good complement of each other,” said the Rev. Kevin Feeney, director of the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, who has served on the board for about a year. “We never experience contentiousness as a group, but there are disagreements. Some people say we have enough material. Others say we still need some more. We try to work toward consensus.”

Feeney said there haven't been any new allegations brought to the board in the last five months. The board receives regular monthly updates from McCluskey on cases with ongoing investigations by DCFS, Hillard Heintze or police.

If the board determines there is reason to suspect abuse, the board may recommend that a priest not be fit for ministry — but it's ultimately up to the archbishop whether to take that advice.

Victims' advocates point to the case of Daniel McCormack, the Chicago priest who pleaded guilty in 2007 to several counts of criminal sexual abuse, as evidence that despite the archdiocese's reforms the system doesn't always work.

In McCormack's case, the review board determined he should be removed — but Cardinal George allowed him to stay.

“I believe they are good-hearted and generous in their willingness to be involved, but they only can review the information they are given. ... And the archbishop doesn't have to follow their recommendations anyway,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims' advocacy group, who has called on archdiocese officials to “open up” all priest files to police and prosecutors. “They shouldn't be involved in investigating crimes any more so than Archbishop (Blase) Cupich should be going to the head of police asking for advice on his homily for Sunday Mass.”

George in 2006 apologized for not following the recommendation of the review board and said he accepted responsibility “for the many missteps in responding to the accusations of sexual abuse of minors by Father McCormack.”

John O'Malley, the archdiocese's special counsel for misconduct issues, said he believes the archdiocese has reported every new case of sexual abuse to authorities since 2002 and provided files of older allegations going back decades.

“There is sin in the world. There is sin in the Catholic Church. There are criminals on the street. That's why we need police,” O'Malley said. “No one here is suggesting there will never be another incident of child abuse. The issue is do we do everything we can to prevent it and do we do everything we can to deal with it when we learn about it?

“Dan McCormack was a tragedy, but there may be another tragedy. That is not an indictment of the process.”

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Checking on priests, employees and volunteers

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  Francis George was the main celebrant at the Mass of Atonement and Hope, held annually in October at Holy Family Parish in Chicago to promote "healing for child and youth sexual abuse survivors, their families and the church." Daniel White/, October 2014
  This statue of the Holy Family is the centerpiece of a healing garden next to Holy Family Parish in Chicago that is dedicated to victims of priest sex abuse. Mark Black/
  Jan Slattery, as director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth for the Archdiocese of Chicago, oversees a staff of 15 people responsible for responding to accusations of priest sex abuse, coordinating compliance checks and overseeing a victims assistance ministry. Joe Lewnard/
  John O'Malley is the Archdiocese of Chicago's special counsel for misconduct issues, responsible for oversight of settlement agreements with victims. Joe Lewnard/

Timeline of Archdiocese of Chicago's response to sex abuse

To date, archdiocese officials say they have substantiated 352 abuse cases relating to 66 priests since 1952 (not including the Rev. Daniel McCormack or the Rev. Edward Maloney*), and paid out $130 million in settlements with victims.

1992: Commission appointed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin recommends reforms in the way the archdiocese handles allegations of sex abuse. Review board and assistance ministry established.

2002: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopts zero tolerance standard, requiring priests to be removed if an allegation of sex abuse is substantiated against them. Before, some priests were allowed to stay in limited ministry.

2003: Office for the Protection of Children and Youth established.

2006: McCormack arrested on multiple counts of criminal sexual abuse. He pleads guilty the following year and is sentenced to five years in prison.

January 2014: Archdiocese releases more than 6,000 pages of documents detailing instances of child sex abuse by 30 priests.

November 2014: Archdiocese releases 15,000 pages of documents involving 36 priests.

*Archdiocese officials say they plan to release files on McCormack and Maloney once their respective trials — for McCormack, a civil trial, and for Maloney, a canonical trial — are complete.

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