Not unlike Roman Catholic Church leaders who dug in their heels and were nearly dismissive when the national clergy abuse scandal broke in 2002, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George was defensive last month when allegations were leveled by prosecutors against a 37-year-old pastor at an inner-city parish.
Since then, the cardinal has done a near-reversal. "I thought that we had the process ... to take care of these things," George said last week. "Now it turns out it wasn't adequate, that I wasn't adequate."
The cardinal indicated that the archdiocese of Chicago would change its policies regarding allegations of clergy abuse this week. One possibility is to remove priests immediately once allegations of abuse are made. Currently, allegations must be investigated before priests can be removed.
Although it's a touchstone of the American judicial system that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, those in sensitive positions who are accused of misconduct – police officers, teachers, prosecutors and others – often are asked to step down from their position until the case against them is resolved. It appears that Cardinal George believes the same kind of policy should apply to accused priests.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops, in responding to the clergy abuse scandal, have stated that the protection of innocent lives from sexual predators – laymen and clergy – is paramount. But the most recent case in Chicago, where a priest was permitted to remain in his position for six months after church officials became aware of accusations of abuse against him, points out that there are still serious deficiencies in the church's supposed zero-tolerance policy.
Cardinal George, who also oversees all the other Catholic dioceses in Illinois, has pledged to fix a broken system. For the good of the church, and especially for its young people, we certainly hope so.