United States: sex abuse in Catholic church: over 1,900 minors abused in Illinois, State says

More than 450 credibly accused child sex abusers ministered in the Catholic Church in Illinois in the decades since 1950, the state attorney general said Tuesday. Credit...Shafkat Anowar/Associated Press

A new report by the attorney general of Illinois covering decades names more than 450 credibly accused sexual abusers, including priests and lay religious brothers.

The LatestMore than 450 credibly accused child sex abusers have ministered in the Catholic Church in Illinois over almost seven decades, the office of the state’s attorney general, Kwame Raoul, said Tuesday in an investigative report. That is more than four times the number that the church had publicly disclosed before 2018, when the state began its investigation.

The 696-page report found that clergy members and lay religious brothers had abused at least 1,997 children since 1950 in the state’s six dioceses, including the prominent Archdiocese of Chicago.

The report adds 149 names to lists of child sex abusers whom the dioceses themselves had publicly identified before or during the investigation. That brings the total number of identified abusers to 451, the report says. The additional names were supplied by victims who came forward and shared their accounts with investigators, who then followed up on their accounts. Investigators also reviewed more than 100,000 pages of files held by the dioceses, and interviewed church leaders and their representatives. The 149 new names are religious brothers, who are accountable primarily to independent religious orders rather than to local dioceses and bishops.

One case among many documented in the report involves Thomas Francis Kelly, a priest who abused more than 15 boys ranging in age from 11 to 17 in several parishes in the 1960s and 1970s. A victim contacted the attorney general’s investigators to describe being singled out by Father Kelly as an 11-year-old altar server. The priest invited the boy to drive-in movies and to spend the night in the rectory, where the priest offered him beer. The boy awoke in the night to find Father Kelly performing oral sex on him, the report says.

The priest’s tactics were well enough known that they became a topic of conversation among the victim’s peers. Two other victims of Father Kelly shared similar experiences with investigators. The archdiocese moved the priest from parish to parish, the attorney general’s report notes. The priest died in 1990.

Background: Illinois is the latest state to detail decades of abuse.

Attorneys general and grand juries in a number of states have investigated sexual abuse in the church, including an investigation into the Archdiocese of Baltimore that was released last month. The many investigations were inspired by a sweeping report in 2018 on six dioceses in Pennsylvania, which stunned Catholics across the country.

The Illinois report was initiated by Lisa Madigan, Mr. Raoul’s predecessor as attorney general, who identified early in her investigation a significant gap between the number of clergy members who had been credibly accused and the much smaller number disclosed by the church. “The number of allegations above what was already public is shocking,” she told The New York Times in 2018.

Why It Matters: Questions about abuse by Illinois clergy members have lingered for years.

The effects of the clerical sex abuse crisis have rippled through the Catholic Church in the United States for decades, and burst into public view 20 years ago when the The Boston Globe documented a sprawling cover-up of abuse in church settings.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois estimates that Catholics make up about 27 percent of the state’s population, above the national average for states.

In the early 1990s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago led a pioneering commission on sexual abuse in church settings, establishing a board made up mainly of lay people to evaluate accusations of abuse against clergy members. The attorney general’s report calls the Chicago archdiocese “a leader in the new era of handling abuse claims,” with a policy of removing credibly accused clergy members from ministry rather than shuffling them to new posts. But the report also documents how the archdiocese sometimes failed to act on its own recommendations.

In advance of the release of the attorney general’s report, the state’s six Catholic dioceses released a statement last week on their approach to allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, said in the statement that the church in Illinois “has been at the forefront of dealing with sexual abuse of minors for many years.”

“This report clearly tells us that no one knew more about abuse, and no one did less about it, than these dioceses themselves,” said Mike McDonnell, a spokesman for SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse.

What’s Next: Prosecutions appear unlikely in many of the cases described.

Most of the abuse documented in the report happened decades ago. The report acknowledges that criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits will be impossible for many victims, because of statutes of limitations and the fact that the majority of the perpetrators have died.  Some states, including California and New York, have enacted a “look-back window” allowing victims of child sex abuse to bring civil claims that would otherwise be barred by statutes of limitations, but Illinois is not among them.

The report was intended to provide “public accountability and a measure of healing to survivors who have long suffered in silence,” Mr. Raoul said at a news conference Tuesday morning. He said the dioceses had fulfilled their pledges to cooperate fully with the investigation.

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