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An ‘Open Secret’: Catholic Sexual Abuse in the Black Community

by Ashahed M. Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call

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Attorney Jeff Anderson, left, places his hand on the files of Catholic priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors in the Archdiocese of Chicago, prior to a news conference, Jan. 21, in Chicago. Joining Anderson is Attorney Marc Pearlman. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) – Files released by the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese show decades of systematic secrecy and protection of pedophile priests, however, for some victims of abuse, the nightmare continues and justice remains elusive.

David Nolan is 46-years-old. His harrowing tales of abuse began at 13 years of age as Father Victor Stewart, now deceased, used his authority and power to have sex with dozens of young boys at will, and seemingly without any fear of being punished.

The Nolan tragedy provides almost a case study into how pedophile priests victimized the Black community.

In files released as part of a settlement in a sexual abuse case, the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese was clearly aware of many allegations of sexual abuse involving Fr. Stewart. Documents show victims reported Fr. Stewart and other priests were “part of a club that participated in pedophilia.”

Mr. Nolan said the church shuffled priests from parish to parish to protect its image, not children and families in the church. Church leaders knew all along abuse charges were true, he said. “I’ve continued to be abused over the years not only by the Chicago Archdiocese, but by our legal system. It destroyed my marriage because I didn’t have no recourse, I didn’t know how to deal with it, it destroyed my relationships with family, so now to hear that these documents are being released I’m saddened.

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David Nolan
Photo: Tim 6X

I’m dismayed. I’m disappointed because the church I grew up loving—when they had a chance to really display spirit and truth of Christ—they chose to persecute me and label me as a liar.”

Fr. Stewart was considered a godfather to the many young boys with no role models or mentors. As a religious figure in a crime-ridden Englewood neighborhood, he was placed on a pedestal. Many of the young men from impoverished backgrounds enjoyed receiving gifts Fr. Stewart showered them with, new clothes, gym shoes and video games. Those gifts came with a price—inappropriate touching, sex, and a vow of secrecy.

From time to time, young boys would actually live at the rectory, and according to legal files and testimonies, the sexual abuse was an open secret. Not all of the victims were young teenagers. Some reported abuse beginning at age 16 or 17 and continuing until ages 20 or 21.

Mr. Nolan even tried to tell the Chicago police about the abuse. He said he was called a liar and ridiculed.

At several churches where Fr. Stewart served, there were multiple allegations of sexual abuse. There was a report of sexual abuse when Fr. Stewart was at St. Catherine of Genoa parish and the survivor was in high school. According to the archdiocese report: “The abuse consisted of oral sex on the survivor and occurred about once per month in high school.”

Fr. Stewart reportedly sexually abused minors from 1981-1986 while serving at St. Charles Lwanga parish. The parish council of St. Ailbe’s church, where he served in the early 1990s, was “upset because they see boys coming and going from the rectory at all hours,” documents show. The two parishes consisted of majority Black congregations and all three are on the city’s South Side.

He was also accused of embezzling funds, money victims say was used to coerce and control them.

In October 1991, a memo in his file noted the latest sexual abuse “accusations against him are well-founded and that someone is pushing for boys to come forward.” Yet a January 1992 letter from the Sex Crimes Division chief of the Cook County attorney’s office announced the unit had ended its investigation, and there would be no charges.

After leaving that church, Fr. Stewart served at Mercy Rehab Center. An April 1992 memo suggested that he not be alone with teenagers who worked at the center without another adult present. A June 1992 memo added, “Stewart will have to get therapy and be under monitoring for a long time.”

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In this March 14, 2013, file photo, Chicago Cardinal Francis George speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Rome, Italy. The Archdiocese of Chicago spent decades covering up the sexual abuse of children according to documents released by Church officials and made public on Jan 21, by victims’ attorneys. George, who has led the archdiocese since 1997, released a letter to parishioners on Jan. 12 in which he apologized for the abuse and said releasing the records “raises transparency to a new level.” He also stressed that much of the abuse occurred decades ago, before he became archbishop. He said all of the incidents eventually were reported to civil authorities and resulted in settlements with victims. But victims’ lawyers have stressed that many of the allegations, if not the actual abuse, surfaced after George assumed control of the archdiocese, and some of the documents relate to how the church handled the cases much more recently. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

“The most disturbing thing about this is that the Chicago Archdiocese fought tooth and nail and called me a liar,” said Mr. Nolan. “I’m deeply disturbed by it because they made me out to be a liar for 30 years! It’s disturbing because a lot of my friends and brothers were abused and have continued to suffer because of this abuse.”

In a Jan. 21 statement, the Archdiocese of Chicago said their awareness and understanding of the problem of sexual abuse within the church represents a new reality and abuse of any child is a sin. They asked victims of priest sexual abuse to continue to come forward.

“Today no priest with even one substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor serves in ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago,” the statement continued. “The Archdiocese acknowledges that its leaders made some decisions decades ago that are now difficult to justify.”

Those decisions have also cost the Catholic Church millions of dollars in America and abroad in civil suits won by abuse victims.

Allegations of racial discrimination

In November 2009, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago delivered a report to The Final Call complied by the law firm Pugh, Jones, Johnson and Quant dealing with charges of racial discrimination in the abuse settlement process. Many Black victims of priest sexual abuse believe their cases were not treated with the importance of cases brought by wealthier White congregants. According to the report, there was no evidence of racial discrimination during the review or settlement process, however, the charge persists.

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Sins of the Fathers: A Three Part Final Call News Series Examining Black Victims of Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests

Attorney Phillip Aaron, who for over a decade has represented Black victims of sexual abuse by priests, said no one reached out to his office to speak with any of his clients for that 2009 report. How could the church conclude there was no discrimination without talking to those who made the accusations? he asked. Rather than trying to be fair and just, the archdiocese went out of its way to avoid talking or communicating with any of my clients, said Atty. Aaron. “There’s been no contact with me about the Black clients—not even a whisper,” he added.

To critics, it is disingenuous to hear Cardinal George say he was unaware of sexual abuse claims. Reports alleging sexual abuse have been sent to The Vatican since the 1950s. Although he was not the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese when many of these abuses occurred, the problem of Catholic priest sexual abuse is well-known.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) holds regular protests and wants current and former Chicago Catholic church staff and members to help protect children by identifying pedophile priests, making sure their histories are known. In some cases, offending priests—though removed from public clerical duties—are living among unsuspecting neighbors, they said.

Some of these clerics would be behind bars, SNAP said, if not for three factors. First, in many cases, Catholic officials shielded them from law enforcement for years. Second, church officials have long lobbied against reforming what SNAP called “archaic and predator-friendly secular child safety laws.” And third, when credible abuse allegations surface, church officials are slow to conduct effective outreach to identify other victims or witnesses, said the advocacy group.

“SNAP fears that many who were abused by Stewart are still suffering in silence, shame and self-blame, in part because of the severity of his crimes. Stewart also worked primarily in African-American communities where, more families tend to struggle with economic need and tend to distrust authorities, especially law enforcement,” according to a recent statement on SNAP’s website.

The scandals appear to be taking a toll. The Chicago church had paid $77 million for sexual abuse settlements as of 2008, according to the Catholic News Agency. At least six Chicago area Catholic schools are closing by the end of this school year due to declining enrollment. The number of Blacks identifying themselves as Catholics in Chicago is shrinking. The Chicago Archdiocese serves just over 2.2 million Catholics and approximately 66,000 or 3 percent are Black. This is down from 90,000 self-identified Black Catholics just two years prior. According to the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops, there are  3 million Black Catholics in America.

Reginald Montgomery is another victim of priest sexual abuse who was represented by Atty. Aaron. They spoke briefly after reports of the most recent release of files appeared in the news.

His traumatic stories of abuse also began when he was 13. He was homeless after his mother kicked him out for misbehaving. Mr. Montgomery looked up to his priest as a father figure and was allowed to sleep upstairs in the rectory. Late one night, he was awakened by the priest rubbing on his body. Before he realized what was happening, it was too late. He was overpowered and raped.

Days after the document release, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and a lawyer for an alleged sexual abuse victim announced a $3.2 million settlement. The lawsuit by the plaintiff, who hasn’t been identified, accused the archdiocese of failing to promptly remove Daniel McCormack after claims he abused children had emerged. Plaintiff attorneys say their client was abused as a boy between the eighth and 11th grades.

“We are pleased to have reached this settlement because it marks one more step toward bringing justice to the victim and his family,” Attorney William F. Martin said in a statement.

The archdiocese noted Jan. 30 that the settlement was reached with help from a mediator.

“The Archdiocese continues to encourage the use of alternatives to litigation to resolve claims of sexual misconduct in a just, fair and compassionate manner,” it said. “The Archdiocese encourages anyone who has been sexually abused by a priest, deacon, religious or lay employee, to come forward.” Mr. McCormack pleaded guilty in 2007 to abusing five children. He was sentenced to five years in prison and removed from priesthood. He’s currently confined to a state mental health facility. Other civil claims against the Chicago church are still pending.

Losses as a result of church failures to act are also mounting: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, Montana filed for bankruptcy protection Jan. 31 as part of a proposed $15 million settlement for hundreds of victims who say clergy members sexually abused them over decades while the church covered it up.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, Mont., includes the Cathedral of St. Helena. The diocese filed for bankruptcy protection but doesn’t expect to liquidate any of its assets. Diocese spokesman Dan Bartleson said the Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization plan comes after confidential mediation sessions with the plaintiffs’ attorneys and insurers, resulting in the deal to resolve the abuse claims.

The settlement details are being worked out, but the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Montana would be responsible for approving and supervising the disbursement of $15 million to compensate the 362 victims identified in the two lawsuits. In addition, at least $2.5 million will be set aside for victims who come forward later, spokesman Bartleson said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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