Chicago archdiocese wins claim against false sex abuse allegations
A Chicago man who filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Chicago alleging sexual abuse by a notorious former priest has been ordered to repay the church for the money it spent defending itself, a Cook County circuit court judge ruled earlier this month. Church officials in Chicago say that revelations regarding other fraudulent cases could be forthcoming, a prospect that both the archdiocese and victim advocates say will be a disservice to genuine victims.
The man, identified in court documents only as John J. Doe, said in a 2015 lawsuit that he had been sexually assaulted by Daniel McCormack, a former priest who was convicted in 2007 of molesting five boys associated with a Chicago Catholic school that was connected to the parish where he was pastor.
While serving time in prison, Mr. Doe discussed plans for the lawsuit on the telephone with several people, including a cousin who had previously settled with the archdiocese over abuse claims against Mr. McCormack. During the initial phase of the lawsuit, lawyers for the archdiocese subpoenaed more than 300 hours of audio recordings from those phone calls. The church then found evidence they claimed proved Mr. Doe was lying about the abuse.
Mr. Doe eventually withdrew his case for reasons unrelated to the tapes, but he said he planned to refile. In July, the archdiocese filed its own suit against Mr. Doe, alleging that under an Illinois statute, the church was entitled to receive compensation for costs associated with defending itself against a bogus claim. Earlier this month, Judge Kathy M. Flanagan agreed with the church, ruling that based on “unrebutted and uncontradicted evidence,” the allegations were “not well-grounded in fact.”
“This is going to make it harder for victims to come forward.”
John O’Malley, a lawyer for the archdiocese, told America that there is “a very difficult balance” in trying to be “good stewards” of the church’s financial resources, some of which is used to assist victims, while avoiding re-victimizing or re-injuring “the people coming forward” by questioning their allegations too rigorously.
Another lawyer representing the archdiocese, James C. Geoly, said that all cases brought against the church are subject to scrutiny but that in certain instances, there is “a healthy skepticism” because of the length of time that has passed since alleged abuse took place, as well as a plaintiff’s thin connections to the school, parish or neighborhood.
Church officials also said they had an ethical obligation to alert the court of potential fraud.
Paula Waters, chief communications officer for the archdiocese, said that Mr. Doe’s suit was “an affront to real victims.” She said some people have asked why the archdiocese appears to be “going after victims,” but she said that in Mr. Doe’s case, “We’re going after fraud.”
The managing director for SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, told America that false allegations of clerical sexual abuse, which she noted are very rare, ultimately harm victims.
“When you want to report sexual abuse by a respected member of the community, it’s very difficult,” Barbara Dorris said. “Anything that makes it harder for a survivor or a child to report sexual abuse is a bad thing.”
“We want to make it easier for survivors to come forward, not harder. This is going to make it harder for victims to come forward,” she said.
Several people interviewed for this story said that they were unaware of similar cases in which a diocese was awarded money by courts from individuals who had made false accusations. But church officials and victims rights advocates agree that instances of fraud in abuse cases are rare.
Since 2002, when the extent of the clergy sexual abuse scandal broke, U.S. dioceses have paid between $3 billion and $4 billion in settlements related to clergy sexual abuse. Many dioceses have been reluctant to question the veracity of many claims, but with insurance no longer covering many settlements, how the church uses its resources appears to be coming under greater scrutiny.
Convicted in 2007 of sexually assaulting five children, Mr. McCormack was sentenced to five years in prison. He remains in state custody today, living in a mental-health facility, because of an Illinois law that allows sexually violent people to be held indefinitely.
The McCormack case was an embarrassing setback for the archdiocese, coming to light a few years after then-archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Francis George had urged U.S. bishops to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for priests credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Archdiocesan officials first learned of complaints against Mr. McCormack in 2003 but did not follow up on them. Two years later, Cardinal George was alerted when Mr. McCormack was arrested and released in August 2005 after allegations that he sexually assaulted a young boy. But the cardinal allowed the priest to stay in active ministry until January 2006, when he was arrested again.
An outside auditing firm later found that the archdiocese had violated a number of its own policies meant to prevent such outcomes. Since that time, a number of lawsuits related to Mr. McCormack have been settled by the archdiocese, which has paid more than $36 million to victims.
Earlier this month, a $50 million lawsuit was filed against the church by another person alleging abuse by the defrocked priest, one of about 15 making their way through Illinois courts. The archdiocese said its insurance no longer covers settlements.
The recordings of Mr. Doe’s phone calls show that he planned to “play [the] role” of a victim of sexual abuse, and in their motion against him, the archdiocese’s lawyers called his suit a “textbook violation” of a law meant “to prevent the filing of false and frivolous lawsuits.”
The recordings of Mr. Doe’s phone calls show that he planned to “play [the] role” of a victim of sexual abuse.
The church argued that Mr. Doe’s “own words—which he concealed in discovery in this case—confirm that he made up his claims for money and retained counsel to file a lawsuit to profit from these false claims.”
Mr. Doe’s cousin told him in a 2013 phone call that he had collected $1 million in settlement money and urged him to file his own suit.
A few months later, in January, Mr. Doe said to a girlfriend that he wanted to “get my little slice of the pie.”
In March 2014, Mr. Doe reminded his cousin of the promise to help him with a lawsuit, noting that the settlement amounts had increased, referring to aJanuary 2014 agreement in which one victim was given $3.15 million.
In June, just before Mr. Doe was released from prison, his cousin reassured him that he had been “working with the archdiocese….[A]nybody I say got touched, or didn’t get touched, they believe me.”
Mr. Doe replied that he needed “free money” and that he was happy to proceed with the suit as long as nobody had to “touch me for real.”
By July, Mr. Doe had contacted a lawyer. He told his cousin during another phone call that he should be able to convince church authorities that he was also a victim because he had previously met some of Mr. McCormack’s victims and even Mr. McCormack himself.
“Yeah boy,” Mr. Doe said to his cousin. “I gotta go play that role.”
Mr. Doe’s cousin was at that time held in Cook County Jail himself. That meant that phone calls between the two could be recorded. The conversations were eventually introduced as evidence by the archdiocese.
Mr. Doe hired the same lawyers as his cousin, but he eventually switched to another firm. His new lawyers filed a suit against the archdiocese in June 2015. It alleged that in 2004, when Mr. Doe was in seventh grade, Mr. McCormack had pressured him into performing oral sex in exchange for a spot on a basketball team. The fraudulent complaint alleged other acts of sexual assault as well.
As part of the lawsuit, Mr. Doe was asked during a deposition if any other person had encouraged him to bring the suit. He answered, “No,” and he did not mention the phone calls with his associates about the lawsuit.
After Mr. Doe withdrew the case in 2017, church lawyers argued that there should be “repercussions for his fraud,” urging the circuit court to order Mr. Doe “to pay for the costs incurred in defending this action, including transcription and videographer charges” and to grant “such other and further relief as may be just and proper.”
“[The] Plaintiff’s own words,” the archdiocese argued, “confirm that he made up his claims for money and retained counsel to file a lawsuit to profit from these false claims.”
Judge Flanagan agreed and has given the archdiocese until Nov. 13 to tell the court how much money they seek to recover. The archdiocese’s lawyers told America they have not decided on that amount but said costs could include court fees, legal fees and transcription fees.
Mr. Geoly, the church’s lawyer, said there are some other pending claims against Mr. McCormack that may be turn out to be false.
“We are defending cases right now and we certainly think there are some that are fraudulent,” he said.
Regarding Mr. Doe and his cousin, Mr. Geoly added that the “transcripts reveal that there are some people talking to each other about a group that is putting in claims and obviously we’re looking really closely at any pending case that is connected to those people and doing the work we can do. We have to try to turn over every stone if we’re going to responsible about it.”
Correction (Nov. 1, 2017: 4:51 p.m. ET): In a previous version of this report, Paula Waters's name was misspelled as Watters.