I-Team Report: Talking Points

August 5, 2009 (CHICAGO) The seven pages of 'talking points' are intended for Chicago Roman Catholic Church officials to use while answering questions about priest sex abuse - questions from parishioners or even the press.

For victim's groups, such a public relations tactic is raising questions about whether the archdiocese is as honest and transparent as it now claims, while church leaders say times have changed and they are all about openness.

"I hope we've learned that there has to be a transparency," said Cardinal Francis George, Archdiocese of Chicago.

Cardinal George hammers the point. But last month, when several more abuse cases were settled, that transparency became clouded according to some church critics including one lawyer for abuse victims.

"It's actually very disappointing," said Marc Pearlman, victims' attorney.

That is attorney Marc Pearlman's first impression of a confidential memo written last month and obtained by the I-Team.

A cover letter from the cardinal's top deputy states it is "not a public document."

The so-called talking points themselves written by the cardinal's communication's director were stamped: "for internal use."

"It's more of the same. It's secret. It's telling the masses what you want them to know as the truth," said Pearlman.

The information packets were circulated in July to coincide with the announcement of nearly $4 million in settlements reached in several sex abuse cases involving the Chicago archdiocese.

"They said in 2002, no more secrecy, we're committed to transparency and openness. Now in 2009 we hear 'oh no.' They're putting a spin on it," said Barbara Blaine, Snap-Survivor's Network. Click here to read the response of the group Voice of the Faithful to the archdiocese memo.

"It was not a secret, it was intended as a briefing document for people to help them understand," said John O'Malley, director, Archdiocese Legal Department.

Church legal director John O'Malley told the I-Team on Wednesday that the talking points sent to pastors were aimed at balancing negative statements from some victim's groups.

"The impression is given that nothing has been done about it, nothing good occurs in the church and I think that's unfortunate and I think in fact that's what motivated the document you see here is to try to counter that," said O'Malley.

Among the talking points: it was never the practice of the archdiocese to move priest sex offenders from one parish to another. But memos written by rising Chicago Bishop Raymond Goedert state it was the practice. A 1988 memo describes moving an accused priest to a church a "physical as well as psychological distance" from his previous three parishes.

"Bishop Goedert knew crimes were being committed, he basically aided and abetted in the crimes continuing," said Blaine.

"The diocese never had a policy of moving priests from parish to parish to avoid knowledge of sex abuse. The diocese from time to time would return a priest to ministry after some treatment or therapy in the hope that that priest could continue his ministry and the diocese would not adequately inform the people involved. That was a mistake, we learned from that mistake," said O'Malley.

Although Bishop Goedert is officially retired he still celebrates Mass and confirmations. He declined an interview. But in Goedert's deposition, the bishop claims to have been following church rules and state laws at the time.

"It's no better than, um, than in World War II when people said they were just following orders," said Pearlman.

This is how far church officials say they have come. An entire department that conducts employee and volunteer background checks; safe environment training; ministers to victims and investigates abuses.

As with most new cases, the abuse was from 20 years ago, a time when many victims were ashamed and scared to come forward.

"We move into action very quickly now. We inform all of the public venues that need to know. Those men who are still in our program who were removed from public ministry are monitored today. I think it's a very different piece than it was then," said Jan Slattery, Archdiocese Office for Protection of Children. Watch the complete interview with Jan Slattery.

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