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The Catholic New World
2006: A year of hurt, hope and healing
Top stories included cardinal's health, clergy sex abuse, immigration

By Michelle Martin

Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago donated more money to the church in 2006, but slightly fewer of them attended Mass.

The faithful kept giving in a year bookended by publicity about allegations of clerical sexual abuse, starting with the arrest of Father Daniel McCormack in February.

The former pastor of St. Agatha Parish on Chicago's West Side was eventually charged with sexually abusing three boys, although many more have since brought allegations against him to the archdiocese.

The archdiocese and Cardinal George came in for blistering criticism when reporters learned that McCormack had been held for questioning by Chicago Police last August after the family of one accuser had gone to them. He was released because of a lack of evidence and stayed at his parish post, even continuing to teach algebra and coach basketball at Our Lady of the Westside School's St. Agatha Campus.

Another priest was assigned to live at St. Agatha Rectory and monitor McCormack's behavior, but had a full-time position at a high school, and was never informed of the seriousness of the accusations against McCormack.

He was arrested in February after a second boy came forward with allegations of abuse, and after that arrest, abuse against a third child was added to the charges.

In the meantime, the archdiocese changed its own policies and procedures, putting Chancellor Jimmy Lago in charge of all issues related to clerical sexual abuse. Lago commissioned an independent report by Defenbaugh & Associates, a firm that specializes in forensic investigations, about what went wrong in the handling of the McCormack case.

The report, released March 20, found that Cardinal George was not given all the information necessary to make a decision, that the archdiocese had failed to follow its own policies and procedures; that the archdiocese was at the time not in compliance with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People; that staff members violated Illinois' mandatory reporting laws; that there was a lack of effective communication between the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the archdiocese; and that the archdiocese's policy on monitoring those accused of abuse was inadequate and ineffective.

At the end of the year, a new case involving clerical sexual abuse was in the news, when Father Robert Stepek, pastor of St. Albert the Great Parish in Burbank, maintained his innocence when the archdiocesan Review Board found that there was "reason to suspect" he may have abused two men when they were minors and Cardinal George sent the case to the Vatican for review.

While Stepek had voluntarily stepped away from his parish in May, when the allegations were received, and was formally suspended from ministry in November, when the review board reached its conclusion, he continued to receive the support of many St. Albert parishioners.

In December, he sued his accusers for defamation. They countersued the They countersued the archdiocese, saying he had inflicted emotional pain and distress and that the archdiocese had allowed confidential information to reach the ears of people not directly involved—including their parents.

Meanwhile, also in December, the principal at Our Lady of the Westside School publicly contested a reprimand she received from the Office for Catholic Schools for not notifying DCFS and archdiocesan officials when the family of a former student told her that McCormack had abused the boy and that the police had not been able to charge him.

Appeal a success
The abuse scandal did not stop parishioners from giving to the Annual Catholic Appeal at record levels, thanks at least in part to a new system of asking people to participate.

Parishioners pledged more than $12 million to the campaign, and by the end of November had contributed more than $10 million, far outstripping the campaign’s results in previous years, despite asking for pledges a couple of weeks after McCormack’s arrest.

Under the new system, parishes were asked to send people to a training session and then implement the plan for three straight weekends—one for the pastor explain the appeal and the need for donations, one for people to fill out pledge cards in the pews after hearing a recorded homily from Cardinal George, and one for people who did not fill out the cards the first week to do so.

Each parish was given a target amount of 5 percent of their ordinary income; any money collected above that amount was to be rebated to the parish. Those that did not meet their goals were excused if they followed the steps of the new system. If they did not follow the procedure, then they were to make up the difference between what they collected and the goal.

The higher level of giving, new ways to control spending, and changes in the accounting of pension liabilities led to a much rosier financial picture for the archdiocese, according to the annual financial report released in December. The report shows that the archdiocese had more than $28 million more in assets than liabilities at the end of fiscal 2006-a huge turnaround from the previous year, when the archdiocese's liabilities exceeded assets by more than $68 million.

Immigration rights
A group called Priests for Justice for Immigrants took part in a March 10 march and rally for comprehensive Immigration reform, an event that surprised much of English-speaking Chicago by a turnout of an estimated 100,000 people or more, jamming traffic in the Loop and on the Near West Side for hours. The event was promoted primarily in Spanish-language media, although it had support and participation from organizations representing immigrants from all over the world, including Irish, Poles, Asians and Africans.

Marchers peacefully advocated for a way for undocumented immigrants to attain legal residency and, eventually, citizenship.

The Priests for Justice also held a series of Lenten prayer service in public places, such as Federal Plaza, to draw attention to the need for and the U.S. bishops' support of immigration reform.

A similar, but slightly smaller, march was held May 1, and over Labor Day weekend, a group of immigration reform advocates, including the Priests for Justice, walked from Chicago to U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert's Batavia office to ask for a reform plan that would take the needs of the immigrants into account.

Despite many proposals and much discussion, the only immigration provision to pass out of Congress and be signed into law was a proposal to build a 700-mile-long physical barrier to try to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing the border from Mexico illegally.

Cardinal George's health
Cardinal George underwent surgery for bladder cancer July 27. Doctors at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood removed his bladder and part of his ureter, as well as his prostate gland, in a surgery they believe left him cancer free.

While the surgery was a success, the cardinal did suffer some complications, including an episode of internal bleeding that required a second surgery only hours after the first one and an infection that caused a fever. He was released from the hospital Aug. 15 with orders to recuperate at home until Oct. 1, when he resumed his public schedule. The cardinal said he was deeply moved by the thousands of messages of encouragement and prayers that he received once his illness was reported through local media, which followed the story through the surgery, his release from the hospital and his return to public life.

Quigley closing
In September, students and families at Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary expressed surprise and sadness when archdiocesan officials announced it would close its doors after 102 years in June 2007.

The high school seminary has suffered from declining enrollment, as fewer teenage boys seem ready to contemplate whether they have a vocation to the priesthood, and, officials said, it does not seem to be successful in its primary mission of preparing boys for the priesthood.

While students, family members and alumni protested, prayed and mourned, the decision stood.

At the same time they announced plans to close the school, archdiocesan administrators said they planned to renovate the building and use it for Pastoral Center offices starting in 2008, the same time some Pastoral Center agencies are expected to move to the former St. Joseph Carondolet Center on 35th St., which would allow the current pastoral center, at 155 E. Superior, to be sold.


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