Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, in a letter to be published Jan. 12 in parish bulletins, said "any abuse of a young person is heartbreaking" and such cases have put "a heavy burden on all of us in the church."
His letter announced that in cooperation with the Chicago Archdiocese, lawyers representing those who have brought claims of past abuse planned to release documents pertaining to 30 archdiocesan priests accused of abusing minors at various times in past years.
The release, expected around Jan. 15, is a result of a mediation agreement between claimants and the archdiocese.
"We cannot change the past, but we can help those affected and work to ensure this does not happen again," Cardinal George said in his letter.
Ninety-five percent of the incidents in the cases occurred prior to 1988, according to an archdiocesan press release issued Jan. 7 along with a copy of the cardinal's letter. All cases were reported to civil authorities "and the archdiocese did not hide abuse or protect abusers," it said.
The files name 30 priests, almost all of whom have been laicized or are deceased; none is currently in ministry. The archdiocese said the names have been listed on its website for several years.
"Today there are no diocesan priests in ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago with substantiated sexual abuse claims against them," the release said.
In his letter, Cardinal George said all the incidents referenced in the files "were reported over the years to the civil authorities and claims have been mediated civilly."
"Almost all of the incidents happened decades ago, perpetrated by priests whom neither I nor many younger clergy have ever met or talked to, because the priests were either dead or out of ministry before I came to Chicago as archbishop," he added.
Then-Archbishop George was installed to head the Chicago Archdiocese in 1997. Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal a year later.
In his letter, Cardinal George said that although the files are about old cases, their release "nevertheless ... puts the actions of these men and the archdiocese itself in the spotlight. Painful though publicly reviewing the past can be, it is part of the accountability and transparency to which the archdiocese is committed."
He also discussed in some detail the most recent case highlighted in the documents -- that of former priest Daniel McCormack, who was ordained in 1994.
In 2006, when he was a pastor of St. Agatha Parish on Chicago's West Side, then-Father McCormack was accused of abusing young boys from 2001 to 2005. He pleaded guilty in November 2007 to charges related to the abuse of five children and sentenced to five years in prison. He was removed from the priesthood that year.
Cardinal George said his predecessor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, had "vetted his seminary record" and ordained McCormack. When he became Chicago's archbishop in 1997, the cardinal said, then-Father McCormack "had a reputation as a dedicated priest and effective pastor."
It wasn't until September 2005, he continued, that the priest's name was associated with abuse, when the cardinal was told he had been arrested, questioned and released without charges. "Various offices involved did not consistently share what they knew with me. Nor did the civil authorities share with the archdiocese what they came to know in their investigations," Cardinal George said.
After the priest's second arrest in January 2006, "a number of incidents" were brought to light "that might have served as warning signals along the way, if people had been more wary," the cardinal said. "The response, in retrospect, was not always adequate to all the facts, but a mistake is not a cover-up," he added.
The McCormack case led the archdiocese to revise its policy regarding the reporting of alleged clergy abuse.
An archdiocesan victim assistance ministry has been in place for more than 25 years, the press release noted. The Office for the Protection of Children and Youth provides support to abuse survivors and their families, trains adults and children on how to recognize and prevent abuse; annual audits "ensure all church organizations comply with archdiocesan policies concerning abuse."
Since 2003, more than 160,000 priests, deacons, religious, lay employees and volunteers have been trained by the archdiocese to recognize and prevent abuse; more than 200,000 children have been taught how to protect themselves from sexual predators.