Attorney general closes out 4.5-year investigation into abuse at hands of Catholic clerics in Illinois
By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Catholic dioceses in Illinois failed to disclose hundreds of abusive clerics before the state opened what would become a yearslong investigation into sex abuse within the church, Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
Included in a scathing 700-page report published by Raoul’s office at the end of the four-and-a-half-year investigation is the most comprehensive list to date of Catholic priests and religious brothers – 451 in Illinois – who abused nearly 2,000 victims since 1950.
When former Attorney General Lisa Madigan initiated the investigation on her way out of office in late 2018, only the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Joliet disclosed the names of clergy with substantiated sex abuse allegations against them. Between the two dioceses, they disclosed 103 names.
During the course of the investigation, the other four dioceses began listing their own names of known child sex abusers who ministered within their purviews, eventually upping the number of disclosed clergy with substantiated sex abuse claims against them to 320. The original 103 names disclosed by the Archdiocese of Chicago and Diocese of Joliet had some overlap with lists of names disclosed by the other four dioceses.
But Tuesday’s report names 149 more abusive clergy members than the dioceses had ever disclosed.
“Decades of Catholic leadership, decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight,” Raoul said at a news conference in Chicago. “And because the statute of limitations has frequently expired, many survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic clerics will never see justice in a legal sense. But it is my sincere hope that this report will shine a light on those who violated their positions of power and trust to abuse innocent children, and on the men in church leadership who covered up that abuse.”
A 2017 law eliminated Illinois’ prior statute of limitations for child sex abuse, under which a 20-year clock began ticking on a victim’s 18th birthday. But that law was only prospective; a 2009 Illinois Supreme Court decision affirmed that attempts to alter the statute of limitations retroactively violated the due process rights of the accused.
Asked Tuesday if he would support an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow older victims to file lawsuits, Raoul declined to give an answer.
“I’m not going to speak to that,” he said.
Raoul and Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Thomas Verticchio on Tuesday said investigators referred certain cases to local law enforcement any time they had reason to believe the statute of limitations window may have still been open. But they couldn’t say how many cases were actionable.
However, they did say the most recent abuse detailed during the investigation occurred in approximately 2010.
The investigation spans more than seven decades, with some of the oldest priests named in the report having been ordained in the 1910s. Raoul on Tuesday confirmed that the majority of those named in the report – 330 – were already dead.
“These perpetrators may never be held accountable in a court of law, but by naming them in this report, the intention is to provide public accountability and a measure of healing to survivors who have long suffered in silence,” Raoul said.
The attorney general’s office made “more than 600 confidential contacts” with survivors of child sex abuse by church leaders, including in-person, video and phone interviews, in addition to messages left on the attorney general’s hotline, plus emails and letters.
The dioceses cooperated in the investigation, giving staff in the attorney general’s office access to thousands of files and allowing diocese leadership to sit for interviews with investigators.
“It’s important to note, when we say substantiated, we were not calling balls and strikes,” Raoul said “The Church is, in the end, substantiating.”
According to the report, 22 clergy members associated with dioceses in Illinois had preyed on five or more children. Nine of those had at least 10 victims over the course of their careers, and one former priest – Joseph Fitzharris of Chicago – had at least 20 victims dating back to his first assignment in Puerto Rico in the late 1960s.
Fitzharris spent 17 years associated with eight churches in the Chicago area before moving on to Missouri, Indiana, California and Colorado, where he continued abusing children until the mid-1980s, according to the report. He was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor in Illinois in 1987, removed from public ministry in 1991, resigned in 1995 and was finally laicized by Pope Benedict in 2009.
The report is full of anecdotes and direct quotes from survivors interviewed by the attorney general’s office. In one heart-wrenching story, a woman referred to by the pseudonym “Shanice” recounted how she was repeatedly raped by Father Robert Boley in the late 1980s when she was a fifth grader at Saint Cyril in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.
Boley’s abuse began with inappropriate touching behind his desk while the rest of the class worked on math problems. But eventually Boley would regularly hold Shanice back from going to recess, raping her in the empty classroom.
“He told me I was bad,” Shanice told investigators from the attorney general’s office. “He told me that Jesus made me bad, that he was there to help me.”
Shanice said she both trusted Boley and feared him. She also said she knew she wasn’t the only one of her classmates targeted by Boley.
“I think that what people don’t understand is when you are a child, you don’t separate a priest from God,” she was quoted as saying in the report. “He was God. To me, he was God’s worker.”
According to Shanice, another priest even caught Boley one day, bursting into the empty classroom at recess and witnessing Shanice on his lap. But instead of doing anything about it, Shanice recalled the other priest asked Boley a question, then locked the door behind him on his way back out.
Boley was moved to three other assignments before ending up back in Illinois, where he worked at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Darien in 2002 when another woman accused him of abusing her when she was a young girl in the 1980s, close to the time of Shanice’s abuse.
After decades, Shanice finally told her mother about the abuse in 2019, and eventually agreed to a settlement with the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2022.
According to the report, Boley was removed from public ministry in 2006 and is “on a safety plan.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.