News and Events


Remarks of Cardinal Blase J. Cupich at the City Club of Chicago on “The Chicago Story: Our History on the Abuse Crisis and Role in Shaping the Future.”

November 27, 2018

Good morning – it is good to be with you once again.  In August, just a few days after I issued a letter in response to the devastating revelations of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Jay Doherty invited me to speak to the City Club on the abuse crisis, and I gladly accepted. I began that letter to the people of the archdiocese with the only words I could summon to capture the anguish of the moment: anger, grief, shock.

I have felt that before. Let me tell you a story that has served as a point of reference for me, that is at the core of my convictions, what motivates me when it comes to protecting children.

Years ago, when I was bishop of a mostly rural diocese, a successful middle-aged businessman came to see me.  His story was heart-wrenching.  Starting when he was just nine years old, he explained, serving regularly at Sunday Mass, the parish priest would have him stay afterward, ostensibly to help clean up. But this priest had a darker purpose. He would take the boy into the church basement and sexually abuse him, week after week. And then this priest, a man ordained to serve the people of God, would walk the boy home, hand in hand, and sit down to have dinner with the family. One day the boy asked his mother, “What if Father asks me to do something that I don’t want to do?” His devout mother, thinking the child was talking about avoiding chores, replied: “Whatever Father asks, you have to do.”  And so, he did, for four agonizing years.  Finally, the boy found the courage to tell his father what was going on, and the abuse ended. 

It was, as you might imagine, a profoundly painful thing to share. After the man finished telling his story, I said, “Just tell me what I can do; what do you want me to do?” He told me he wanted to confront the priest, to lay this burden at his feet. He had carried it too long.  When he did, the priest did not deny it. I also asked if I could go to the parish and tell the parishioners what had happened.  He said, “I’ll come with you.”  So, after informing the local police and the Vatican, we visited the parish. I explained what their former priest had done and invited other victims to come forward.  Then I walked to the church vestibule where photos of former priests hung and removed his picture. Soon after, I notified or visited the other places where the priest had served and asked other victims to come forward. 

It was a moment of great pain—but that victim-survivor’s courage forced me to be an adult in a way I had never experienced. That encounter convinced me that there should be no place in the Church for leaders who misuse power or expect privilege or protection because of their status.

I have carried the memory of that man for nearly 20 years, through another diocese, bankrupted by the abuse scandal and finally here where, for nearly three decades, the Archdiocese of Chicago has had a leading, comprehensive and sustained role in responding to the clergy abuse scandal. Many of you will recall that in 1991 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin convened a lay commission to review the archdiocese’s procedures for handling accusations of sexual abuse.  The following year, the archdiocese put in place policies and procedures to address allegations and issues related to the sexual abuse of minors. 

In 1992, Cardinal Bernardin presented and provided copies of the policies and procedures established by the Archdiocese of Chicago to bishops at that year’s USCCB meeting. Had all the bishops at that meeting taken those documents home and fully implemented them in their dioceses, imagine how much further ahead we would be with preventing abuse and punishing offenders.

But Chicago’s efforts did not stop at policies. The archdiocese also dedicated resources:

  • It created the Office of Victim Assistance Ministry to provide direct outreach and support to victims-survivors and their families.  We believe it was the first office of its kind in the United States.
  • It also created an independent office, now known as the Office of Child Abuse Investigations and Review, to receive allegations of abuse of minors by clergy.  This office is headed by lay professionals who provide a compassionate and thorough process for receiving and investigating reports of child abuse against archdiocesan personnel. They notify civil authorities of all reports of possible abuse of a minor, regardless of legal requirements.  The director of that office also serves as staff for the Independent Review Board, which advises me about an accused cleric’s fitness for ministry.  More than 230 recorded board meetings have been held over the years. 
  • Knowing that only prevention would stop this scourge, the archdiocese also established the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth (OPCY), to bring together the various ministries within the archdiocese dedicated to ensuring the safety of children and providing support to victim-survivors.  For instance, the Safe Environment Office, oversees prevention efforts through training for adults and children, and developing resources to educate archdiocesan clergy, employees and volunteers on how to prevent child sexual abuse, how to recognize sex offender behavior and how to create safe environments for children and youth.  Since 2003, 263,000 adults have been trained in 3,700 training sessions.
  • Archdiocesan parishes and schools are required to provide training to children and youth on how to recognize, respond to and report grooming or abuse no matter where or by whom it occurs.  Students receive age-appropriate training in each grade annually.  It instills in them the knowledge that they have a right to be safe and if that they don’t feel safe, they have a right to report. 
  • Safe Environment Office personnel also screen, through name-based background checks, all clergy, employees and volunteers.  Office personnel also receive and review fingerprint results for school personnel. If they do not pass, they are not employed.
  • We also have a Priest Monitoring Program for clergy with substantiated cases of sexual abuse against them.  These men have been withdrawn from ministry and are prohibited from presenting themselves as priests.  They are required to comply with numerous restrictions to ensure safety for the community.

Even with our policies and structures, mistakes can occur. As the McCormack case illustrates, we must maintain vigilance.

By 2002, with the scandal in Boston hanging over the Church, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s 1992 principles helped to shape what’s now known as “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” which was approved by the bishops at their 2002 meeting in Dallas.  The charter reinforced what the Archdiocese of Chicago had been doing for a decade by requiring all dioceses to:

  • Heal and promote reconciliation of victim-survivors and their families;
  • Make prompt and effective response to abuse allegations;
  • Cooperate with civil authorities;
  • Discipline offenders;
  • Create a safe environment for children and young people through training and screening;
  • Provide means of accountability through an annual audit of the implementation of the Charter’s requirements. 

Many have referred to the past few months as the “summer of scandal.” How, so many parishioners asked, could the Church find itself mired in scandal yet again—not only over the abuse of minors and the bishops who failed to protect them, but also over the rise and fall of a cardinal who had been accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and minors? The bishops pledged to address this 16 years ago, they pointed out. What are the bishops doing now, and why should we trust them to do the right thing? As I wrote in my letter following the Pennsylvania grand jury report: “These are precisely the questions that ought to be asked. As a former chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, I have asked them myself. And sorrow, disgust, outrage — these are righteous feelings, the stirrings of the conscience of a people scandalized by the terrible reality that too many of the men who promised to protect their children, and strengthen their faith, have been responsible for wounding both.”

Clearly the answer to these questions must begin with holding bishops accountable not only for any misbehavior but also mishandling of cases as we all promised to do 16 years ago. 

As many of you know, we bishops gathered in Baltimore earlier this month to take up the task of holding each other accountable through a series of proposals that would address these failures by bishops.

What happened at the bishops meeting has been widely reported:  the president of the USCCB, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, announced just before the meeting began that the Holy See had requested the bishops refrain from taking any binding votes. The Vatican wanted us to wait until an unprecedented meeting of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences on clergy sexual abuse, set for this February in Rome. To be sure, our first reaction was disappointment. As we discussed the proposals, however, it quickly became clear that we would not be able to reach a consensus regardless of the Vatican’s intervention. In other words, the proposals presented to us were not mature and we did not have enough time to weigh in on them beforehand since they were given to us only 10 days before the meeting. But, there also was wisdom in Rome’s decision that we work with the bishops around the world. This is a global problem, and we need to listen to the bishops who will gather at the February meeting.

Nevertheless, after Cardinal DiNardo broke this news to the body of bishops, I stood to make two recommendations: First, I suggested that the conference take a non-binding vote on the proposals at hand. My reason for doing so was that clearly the Holy See is placing great importance on the February meeting, and so we should help the president of our conference know our mind as he participates in this gathering. My second suggestion was that we move our next regularly scheduled meeting from June to March, so we can act promptly on the reforms discussed at the February meeting.

Since the significant difficulties with the proposals put forward by the USCCB made it unlikely they would be adopted by the required 2/3 vote, I decided to put forward another idea for investigating accusations against bishops. The proposal, which came together with the help of about half a dozen bishops at the meeting, was to engage significant lay involvement and leverage a regional province structure the Church already has in place. In the United States, provinces are usually broken up by state and are overseen by a metropolitan or archbishop.  For example, I am the metropolitan for the other dioceses in Illinois. According to this proposal, a third-party system, such as the national hotline that the U.S. bishops’ conference is already setting up, would serve as a means for anyone to make an allegation against a bishop, whether of sexual abuse or mishandling cases of abuse. If the allegation involved criminal activity, local law enforcement would be notified by the third-party system. The allegation would also be immediately referred to the chair of the lay-majority review board of the local metropolitan archbishop, and to the metropolitan bishop. If the metropolitan bishop himself is accused, then the allegation would be reported to the chair of the lay-majority review board of the senior bishop in the province and the senior bishop.

I realize that this may sound more than a bit arcane, but in fact this system is part of the reason the Archbishop McCarrick case came to light. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as the metropolitan bishop of the region in which Archbishop McCarrick was alleged to have abused a minor, reported publicly that his review board had determined that the allegation was substantiated. It was also used in the case of Baltimore Archbishop William Lori’s response to an allegation against Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling, which is in the Province of Baltimore. Both Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Lori did their jobs. So, we have proof of concept. I offered this proposal in the hope that it might move our discussions forward in Baltimore and contribute to our follow-up after the February meeting of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences in Rome.

We bishops must address forthrightly the degree to which we have kept the promises we made in 2002 with the adoption of the Charter. The bottom line is, the Charter works if we actually implement it.   I am confident the Archdiocese of Chicago is complying with those promises; in fact, we go beyond them. 

Yet the Pennsylvania grand jury report brought serious doubts that all U.S. bishops have kept the promises we made in 2002, motivating civil authorities, including our own attorney general, to investigate.  Cooperating with such investigations, which seek to bring the terrible truths of the abuse scandal into the light, is something we bishops owe not only all people, but especially our children.

I am resolved that we will deal effectively with this crisis, take the steps necessary to rebuild trust with our people and build on the progress we have made to protect children. Those steps include making it easier for victims to come forward with allegations against bishops and assuring the independence of the review process. The third-party confidential reporting system being set up by the USCCB to handle complaints of sexual abuse of minors by bishops and sexual misconduct with adults by bishops should be in place by June.  We also must adopt policies to address restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors or sexual misconduct with adults. Likewise, we will have to enact a code of conduct for bishops regarding the sexual abuse of minors and sexual misconduct with adults – including negligence related to such cases.

I also believe it is important to have a full and independent investigation of allegations of misconduct with a minor by bishops and full transparency in making the findings public.  No one can be exempt from accountability and the laity must be involved in this process for full transparency.  Finally, as the Holy Father has emphasized, the culture of privilege and self-protection must come to an end.

We would do well to remember that when Cardinal Bernardin was accused of misconduct, he submitted himself to the archdiocesan review process. This was a painful moment for all, but his example speaks powerfully to us today.

Last week Pope Francis appointed me to the planning committee for the February meeting of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences he called to address the abuse crisis. This meeting is unprecedented and reflects the Holy Father’s commitment to safeguarding children as a fundamental priority for the global Church.  Like me, Pope Francis is motivated to take up this work of making major reforms, in large part by his meetings with victim-survivors who bravely shared their stories and deep pain. By his own admission, he has learned a great deal from those encounters. He has been decisive in removing cardinals and bishops, laicizing some for misbehavior and removing bishops for their mishandling of cases. Pope Francis now wants all the Church’s leaders to have a full understanding of the devastating impact clerical sexual abuse has on victim-survivors, but also to accept ownership at a national, regional, diocesan and parish level for effectively addressing this issue in a way that keeps all children safe.

It was nearly 20 years ago when that middle-aged businessman recounted how he was abused by one of my priests. As he spoke to me, I heard the voice of a nine-year-old boy, who, though deeply wounded, had the courage to come forward and share his story. I was humbled by his trust and still am today. The voice of the victim-survivor must be the Church’s true north as we work to address this global scandal. Yes, ours is a church of many nations and many cultures, a diversity that we must respect, but zero tolerance when it comes to harming children and full accountability are non-negotiable. These are not values to be held in the abstract, or simply codified as a list of procedures to be ticked off as a matter of routine. No, they must be lived values. They must be values that permeate the very air we breathe as a church—so that everyone from the volunteer tutor to the bishop knows that building a culture of accountability, justice and healing is essential to what it means to be church, to follow Christ’s call.

Pope Francis put it powerfully in his address to victim-survivors during his 2015 visit to the United States: “The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the Church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all. You survivors of abuse have yourselves become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy. We humbly owe each one of you and your families our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children.”

As a Church, and especially as bishops, we must keep this promise.  We must never abandon victim-survivors. We must never grow complacent. We must confront the truth and act to bring healing and justice to those who have been robbed of both. The Church stands as a sign of God’s surpassing love, a love we Christians find in the person of Jesus. This is a moment to mature in knowing who Jesus is. To the extent that we look into the face of the victim-survivor, we look into the face of Jesus. Our prayer, in this moment of sorrow and agony, must be that the Lord deepen the Church’s thirst for justice and healing, that we hold firm to our resolve to be the hands of God’s mercy, reflecting, with every step we take, God’s own love for his children. That is my prayer, confident and filled with hope that these too are gifts God has always wanted to give his children. 

Thank you.