Child sex abuse by Illinois Catholic clergy spans state and decades, AG investigation finds

ByJessica D'Onofrio, Chuck Goudie, Liz Nagy, and Barb Markoff and Christine Tressel WLS logo
Wednesday, May 24, 2023
Nearly 2,000 children abused by Illinois priests, AG report finds
A long-awaited five year investigation has turned up hundreds of new horror stories of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in Illinois.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A long-awaited five year investigation has turned up hundreds of new horror stories of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in Illinois, the attorney general alleged on Tuesday morning.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul's "Report on Catholic Clergy Child Sex Abuse in Illinois" is 696 pages long was unveiled at a downtown Chicago briefing with reporters.

The report focuses on decades of old and new abuse cases in the state's six dioceses: Belleville, Joliet, Peoria, Rockford, and Springfield and Chicago, which is known as an Archdiocese due to its large size.

Nearly 2,000 survivors of Catholic Church sexual abuse in Illinois were documented by state investigators, according to the attorney general.

Nearly every survivor exhibited "some form of mental health challenge in the years after the abuse" the authorities determined.

WATCH: IL Attorney General Kwame Raoul's full announcement

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul announces the results of an investigation into child sexual abuse by Illinois Catholica priests.

Although many of the cases are historical, going back decades and the subject of previous reporting, survivors remain in need. "The Catholic dioceses and archdiocese in Illinois can, and should, recommit to providing those survivors the ongoing support they need and deserve" said Raoul's report.

There are 3.5 million Roman Catholics in Illinois, according to the AG's report. They, and the dioceses, have been plagued by persistent priest sexual misconduct for decades-with varying attempts to weed out violators, deal with survivors and put reporting controls in place.

WATCH: Cardinal Blase Cupich responds to attorney general's report

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich responded to the Illinois attorney general report on child sex abuse in the Illinois Catholic church.

Attorney General Raoul inherited a statewide church child sex abuse investigation from his predecessor, AG Lisa Madigan.

Cardinal Cupich details streamlining process to handle sex abuse allegations in Catholic church

The just-released state investigative report outlines pervasive and perverted child sexual abuse and criminal assaults by Roman Catholic clergymen, and a legion of survivors who describe in vivid detail harrowing stories of suffering in silence, sometimes for dozens of years.

There are numerous named examples in the report of minors sexually abused by priests who were mistreated by church officials across the state. A common problem, especially in the 1980's and 90's according to cases cited in the report, was that some bishops and diocesan leaders would transfer and protect accused priests to other parishes, with little or no information about their wrongdoing provided to new parishioners or co-workers.

In a nearly 700-page report, investigators found the Catholic Church in Illinois moved priests around from parish to parish without disclosing abuse allegations.

Dan Ronan has wrestled with the demons of sex abuse at the hands of the late Father Thomas Gannon inside St. Jerome's sanctuary on Chicago's North Side since 1971.

"They knew that most of these people were bad people, but they had evil that they were doing evil things they knew that and they let it go on," he said.

State investigators examined more than 100,000 documents and had contact with more than 600 survivors of priest sex abuse. Before their investigation began there were 103 substantiated Catholic Church child sex abusers in Illinois-the result of individual cases reported by church officials under loosely enforced guidelines.

Now, with the additional findings from the attorney general, there are 451 Catholic clerics and religious brothers cited as bonafide youth sex abusers according to the report.

The newly released data for Illinois is significantly worse than what was determined during a similar investigation by a Pennsylvania grand jury and released in 2018-a report that prompted Illinois' investigation.

While the report cites many steps forward in the policing and punishment of sexually abusive churchmen across the Catholic dioceses of Illinois, there are also sharp criticisms of how sexual abuse allegations against priests have been handled-even recently-and how survivors of priest sexual abuse are treated.

The report notes wide differences to this day in how diocesan leaders respond to allegations of sexual abuse by their clergymen.

Chicago was at times heralded for its groundbreaking attack on clergy sex abuse "compared with the rest of the nation" the report states. "Even so, its leaders made glaring missteps long the way and serial predators were at times given ample opportunity to abuse well beyond the time they should have been removed from ministry."

Former Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who literally wrote the book on how dioceses should deal with clergy sex abuse, was both praised and criticized in the report depending which case was cited.

One particular complaint against Chicago church leaders involved the way allegations of dead priests were handled during the decades. At times the archdiocese refused to make allegations against dead priests public or submit information to local investigators because there was "no longer a risk" perceived. The Chicago Archdiocese "failed to recognize the need for survivor healing" in those cases, according to the report.

In the report however, the Chicago Archdiocese "has done much to improve its handling of child sex abuse claims" the past 30 years.

The most critical words in the report appear reserved for the Diocese of Joliet, once headed by Bishop Joseph Imesch. According to the attorney general Imesch oversaw an "off-the-books" handling of pedophile priests that derailed justice for abuse survivors. The report was sharply critical of Imesch's "concentration of power" that "became disastrous" in cases of sexually abusive priests in which he "covered up abuse by shipping off priests to unsuspecting parishes."

Imesch is quoted by state authorities for a disparaging remark about an ABC7 news report in April, 2000. "It's unfortunate, I think, that Channel 7 considers it newsworthy to report on something that happened 20 years ago." The story concerned a priest convicted of child sex abuse being allowed to minister again in the Diocese of Joliet.

Investigators found that Bishop Imesch cast blame on others for the Joliet church problems and mistreated abuse survivors. Imesch died in December of 2015 and despite a belief by survivor's rights organizations that he should have been prosecuted, he never faced charges.

Although a new bishop is in place in Joliet, the attorney general remains critical of the Joliet Diocese power structure-stating that there is still an undue concentration of power and responsibility solely in the top diocesan bishop.

Illinois six dioceses are just receiving the reports on Tuesday, along with the public, as the AG's office kept details under wraps until officially releasing the lengthy document.

Although some people who are quoted in the report refer to themselves as "victims" or having been "victimized" by clergymen, the authors of the attorney general's report purposely chose to use the term "survivors." There seems no perfect terminology for such heinous acts and life-changing abuse the attorney general admits, they contend. "Neither term is appropriate for all" the report states. "Some victims do not see themselves as survivors, no matter how much time has passed since the abuse. A man who suffered child sex abuse at the hands of a Catholic cleric told Attorney General investigators that 'many victims will become survivors when this report is published.' The Attorney General's report is released with the fervent hope that the sentiment comes to pass, which is why the term 'survivor' is used throughout."

A group called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as "snap," said Tuesday that the new numbers are staggering and they believe those numbers will increase.

SNAP says this investigation promotes healing but they still believe the Catholic Church is still not being fully transparent.

"No one knew more about the horrors and history of abusive clergy and no one did less than these diocese themselves," the group said.

ABC7 has reached out to the six dioceses for comment.

To view the report, visit

Cardinal Blase Cupich issued a response saying, "Today, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul published a report (the Report) on his office's investigation of allegations of child sexual abuse against clergy in the six Illinois Catholic dioceses over a period of nearly 90 years. The Report addresses both how dioceses responded to such allegations in decades past and current policies that help ensure the safety of children and support the healing of survivors. We have not studied the report in detail but have concerns about data that might be misunderstood or are presented in ways that could be misleading. It is therefore important that we state what we know to be true. For example:

The 451 names "disclosed:

451 is all 6 dioceses and includes religious order priests
451 includes the priests already on the 6 web sites
ALL were reported to civil authorities, none were undisclosed, none were "hiding in plain sight since at least 2002.
We DO list religious found by their orders to be substantiated
149 still "undisclosed" men are mostly religious order members who are not on our site; they are not undisclosed, and they are under the supervision and report to their respective order. AG himself distinguished between dioceses and religious orders, saying "this was an investigation of the dioceses, not the orders," recognizing they are different. However their totals include both.

AG said: church is more worthy of investigation because it is a trusted religious organization. We think all children deserve to be protected regardless of whether they are cared for by a religious or secular institution; it isn't fair or wise to focus only on the Catholic Church, which has made the greatest strides in this area.

Statute of limitations: we offer care, compassion (pastoral outreach) and even compensation to all who come forward, regardless of the statute of limitations.

AG recommends outsiders being involved in overseeing our internal church investigations. We have had an independent review board with lay people overseeing these investigations since 1992, which is why the number of abuse incidents has dropped so dramatically.

We must think first of the survivors of sexual abuse who carry the burden of these crimes through their lives. On behalf of the archdiocese, I apologize to all who have been harmed by the failure to prevent and properly respond to child sexual abuse by clerics. Survivors will forever be in our prayers, and we have devoted ourselves to rooting out this problem and providing healing to victims.

For more than 30 years, the Archdiocese of Chicago has been at the forefront of developing and improving policies and programs to address the scourge of child sexual abuse and to support survivors. Our policies and procedures, first adopted in 1992, have served as a model for organizations and professionals dealing with this difficult issue. I hope the attention drawn to the issue by the Report will encourage those who work with minors to learn from our experience and take steps to protect all children from sexual abuse.

Here are some key facts about our efforts in the Archdiocese of Chicago:

Since 1992, we have maintained one of the first and largest victim-survivor assistance programs in the nation. We provide assistance to anyone making an allegation, regardless of whether the accused is living or whether the allegation is substantiated.

No cleric with even one substantiated allegation against him is in ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago. When we learn of an allegation of abuse, we act promptly, report it to civil authorities, remove the accused from ministry and investigate the allegation. Allegations are submitted to our lay-majority Independent Review Board for investigation. In accordance with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, clerics found to have committed even one act of child sexual abuse are permanently removed from ministry.

The archdiocese has, to our knowledge, reported all allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy to civil authorities, including the oldest allegations. We report these allegations regardless of whether the accused is alive or dead, a diocesan priest, an extern priest from another diocese or a religious order priest. We consider an allegation to have been made even if the report is made anonymously, has incomplete facts (such as the name of the priest or parish) or is made by a third party, and we report all such allegations to civil authorities. It is important to emphasize that, to our knowledge, there are no "hidden," "undisclosed" or "unreported" allegations of child sexual abuse by the clergy of this archdiocese.

Under our recently amended policies, allegations against deceased priests who have not yet been placed on our website list are processed by our Independent Review Board. If an allegation against a deceased priest is substantiated, the priest's name is added to the list.

When an allegation of child sexual abuse involves a religious order priest working in a ministry of the archdiocese, such as a parish assignment, we remove the accused's faculties to minister in the archdiocese, contact the religious order and help facilitate the survivor's report. Every religious order with members living in the archdiocese is mandated to have a process for investigating such allegations.

Since 2006, we have published the names of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of abuse on our website. In 2014, we published more than 20,000 documents from these priests' files. These documents remain on our website.

We update our website list as needed and have expanded it to include the names of religious order priests whose order has substantiated an accusation against them and who have been assigned to a ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago such as a parish.

We conduct background screenings for archdiocesan clergy, employees and volunteers and implement a comprehensive safe-environment training program for adults and children. Over the last two years, we trained more than 112,000 children in an age appropriate manner on how to recognize, resist and report abusive behavior. To date, we have trained more than 263,000 adults in 3,700 training sessions.

As is required by the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, (the Charter) we audit our parish and school safe environment programs every year and, in turn, the archdiocese's compliance with the Charter is audited by the USCCB

Additionally, we have worked in collaboration with survivors to respond to their need for healing. This partnership has led to the development of the Healing Garden, an annual Mass for Hope and Healing and Pinwheel Service for Child Abuse Prevention, survivor-led peace circles, and the Healing Voices magazine.

We always seek to improve our child protection and victim support efforts. We have repeatedly had our processes, policies and files reviewed by independent experts to help ensure we remain current with best practices.

In addition to these steps, the Archdiocese of Chicago fully cooperates with law enforcement, including with the Attorney General's investigation. We have made our employees available for interviews and provided access to hundreds of thousands of documents. We are committed to continuously reviewing our policies and will carefully consider any changes recommended by the Attorney General. Indeed, the archdiocese has already implemented a number of recommendations the Attorney General made during the course of the investigation such as expansion of the parameters of our website list.

From my earliest days as a bishop, I have dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse by putting the child at the center of my actions. In my experience, whether the abuse happened in the recent or distant past, the survivor speaks from the pain they suffered as that wounded and betrayed child. The Archdiocese of Chicago has long sought to heal them and prevent this crime from occurring again. I am personally committed to applying the highest level of vigilance to these efforts and to further strengthening our safeguards against abuse. I invite other institutions that care for children and civil authorities to join us in this work and consider adopting the procedures we have developed over the past three decades, so that all children are kept safe.

SNAP released a full statement saying, "On Friday afternoon, all six of Illinois' Catholic dioceses sent out a sudden press statement, written in concert, that describes the policies and procedures each institution has in place to protect children from abuse. With today's news, we now know why those Church leaders felt the need to remind parents and parishioners about these policies - because thanks to the work of the investigators at the Illinois Attorney General's office, it is now apparent to us that those policies are weak, vague, and rarely followed.

In a stunning report, A.G. Kwame Raoul's office has described the ways that Catholic leaders in every diocese in the state have acted in concert to protect abusive priests, to keep the public from learning about those crimes, and to push back on survivors and their loved ones who came forward in hopes of preventing other cases of abuse.

According to the report, more than 450 priests have abused nearly 2000 children in Illinois since 1950. These numbers are at once staggering and, unfortunately, likely an undercount.

For many survivors, secular investigations like this will open an area for new conversations, healing among fellow victims, and assisting communities to comprehend the horrors of their past and the risk of their present. When the legal system fails to provide victims with justice, statewide investigations can assist citizens and survivors in communicating essential facts about the global scourge of child sexual abuse.

Because of this, we are grateful to the dedicated investigators from the A.G. office who spoke for thousands of hours to hundreds of survivors, making sure their experiences as victims of Church-sponsored abuse and cover-up were adequately represented. We are especially grateful to those survivors, without whom no report would ever have been released and Catholic leaders would continue to misrepresent the number of abusers to whom Illinois children were exposed.

And let us be clear, in our view the bishops lied. There is no questioning the facts of the report - until 2018 when the investigation began, hierarchs in every Illinois diocese kept known abusers under wraps, declined to include them on their accused lists, and refused to acknowledge the truth that survivors of abuse who came forward to make a report shared with them. It is to us, in a word, disgusting that these supposed shepherds would lie so blatantly. It is, in a word, arrogant that they believed their lies would somehow remain secret even in the face of a secular investigation. We are grateful that their disgusting arrogance has now been publicly exposed.

The stories from survivors contained within this report are harrowing to read, and while each story is unique in its own terrible way, they are also alike in key areas. First, almost all of these survivors were ignored by the Catholic leaders to whom they reported. In nearly every case, Church officials chose to accept the words of abusers and the recommendations of other trash-passing bishops that it was the priest who was innocent, not the victimized child. Second, Catholic leaders artfully and purposefully utilized the statute of limitations to ensure that the criminals they hired, trained, and ordained could not be brought to justice. Third, they deceived the parishioners in their pews, telling them that they had cleaned up their act while they were still quietly transferring abusers from parish to parish, giving them new hunting grounds.

According to the report, a remarkable number of children in Illinois were actively put in danger and exposed to abusers by the named bishops. It enrages us that most of these men cannot be brought to justice due to archaic and predator-friendly statutes of limitations. So instead, we call for Illinoisans to join us in demanding public rebuke and recrimination.

Any building that bears the name of any of these men, or the officials who enabled them, should be renamed. Any mention of them should not be done in an honorable way, but in a cautionary way that demonstrates the danger of arrogance and self-policing. Catholic schools across the state are named for many of these bishops. Instead of placards joyfully talking about their titles, they should be replaced with memorials to survivors and apologies for the cover-ups committed by their namesakes.

But beyond removing honors for abusers and enablers, we must come together to provide justice and healing for survivors and true prevention for children today and into the future. A key barrier to all three of these things is the statute of limitations. We are grateful that Illinois removed criminal SOL several years ago, and we believe the next most important step is the opening of a civil window that would allow expired and time-barred claims to be heard in a court of law. States like New York and California have enacted such laws and the result has been healing for survivors, important information for parents, and valuable lessons for institutions. We recognize that there is a constitutional barrier to such a window in Illinois, but also believe that now is the time to remove that barrier. Survivors deserve justice, children deserve protection, and abusers and enablers deserve to be held accountable.

The sad fact that we have learned from this and other reports is this: we believe that any law enforcement agency investigating nearly any Catholic diocese in the United States would find precisely the same level of criminal behavior by clerics, and the same level of cover-up by Church officials. We truly hope that more attorneys general and local prosecutors across the country will have the guts to dig deeper and investigate Catholic dioceses and institutions in their locale."


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