Judge to decide if ex-priest who molested boys can be committed indefinitely

Judge to decide if ex-priest who molested boys can be committed indefinitely

By Megan Crepeau, September 5, 2017, Chicago Tribune

Court records show more than two dozen boys and young men have alleged Daniel McCormack molested them in their youth, most notably at St. Agatha Parish on Chicago's Southwest Side, where the young Roman Catholic priest coached basketball, taught algebra and delivered eloquent sermons.

 

The accusations against "Father Dan" were seemingly endless.

Court records show more than two dozen boys and young men have alleged Daniel McCormack molested them in their youth, most notably at St. Agatha Parish on Chicago's Southwest Side, where the young Roman Catholic priest coached basketball, taught algebra and delivered eloquent sermons.

The allegations ranged from inappropriate kissing and touching to sexual assault and dated as far back as the early 1990s. According to the court records, one boy said McCormack abused him on the way back from basketball practice, another in the basement of the rectory and still another during the fourth inning of a White Sox game.

In 2007, more than a year after his arrest sent shock waves through the predominately African-American parish in the Lawndale neighborhood, McCormack pleaded guilty to sexually abusing five boys and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was removed from the priesthood.

Now, almost eight years after McCormack completed his prison term, Illinois prosecutors want him declared a sexually violent person under a little-known and controversial state law that could keep the disgraced former priest indefinitely committed to a state facility with other sex offenders.

A hearing is scheduled to begin Wednesday in Judge Dennis Porter's courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.

McCormack has been detained at the Illinois Department of Human Services facility for sex offenders in downstate Rushville since the state filed its petition shortly before he was eligible for parole in 2009.

One of McCormack's many accusers, speaking to the Chicago Tribune on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the allegations, said the defrocked priest is right where he belongs — and deserves to stay there.

"I'm just now getting through this," said the 24-year-old man, who alleged McCormack molested him repeatedly during elementary school. "... If I have not overcome it completely, I don't see how rationally they think that he has came through ... this and learned his lesson."

The man, who pursued damages in private mediation with the Chicago Archdiocese, recently settled for "a significant amount of money," according to Marc Pearlman, a Chicago attorney who has represented several McCormack accusers.

For McCormack to be found a sexually violent person, prosecutors must prove he has a mental disorder that makes it likely he will reoffend if given the chance. Given his long, documented history of abuse, McCormack needs to be committed indefinitely, said Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general's office, which is prosecuting the case.

"It's our belief that he poses a danger to children if he is released into the community," Possley said.

McCormack's attorney declined to comment for this story.

The former priest chose not to participate in any evaluations conducted as part of the commitment proceedings, including those done by experts hired by his own lawyer, according to Possley.

That meant that a psychiatrist who evaluated McCormack years ago at the request of the prosecution had to rely on police reports, information from the archdiocese and records from the Illinois Department of Corrections. The psychiatrist, Dr. Angeline Stanislaus, diagnosed McCormack with pedophilia, concluding it was "substantially probable" he would reoffend if released from custody.

In separate reports written in 2009 and 2011, Stanislaus identified sex abuse allegations against McCormack from more than 25 people in addition to the five victims whose accusations led to his conviction.

"Pedophilia ... predisposed him to engage in acts of sexual violence, which he has demonstrated by repeatedly molesting young boys in spite of confrontation by a parent, questioning by police and a direct order from his Vicar not to have contact with young boys," Stanislaus wrote in her 2011 evaluation.

The proceedings to keep McCormack committed have been on hold for nearly eight years — an extraordinarily long time even by the standards of the sometimes-glacial pace at the county's main criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue.

Part of the delay, according to the attorney general's office, was due to the filing in 2014 of a new criminal charge of sex abuse against McCormack by a sixth alleged victim, but two years later, the charge was dropped when the accuser stopped cooperating.

The Rushville facility houses 574 people, about two-thirds of whom have been officially committed there, according to Meghan Powers, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services. The rest, including McCormack, are detained there awaiting their commitment hearing or a court's decision.

For those confined at the Rushville facility, few win their freedom again. From 2013 to 2016, just 11 were officially discharged from the facility. About 40 more were put on conditional release in the community.

Statutes that detain sex offenders indefinitely after they've completed their prison terms have long been controversial, said Mark Heyrman, a professor at University of Chicago Law School who teaches mental health law.

Some argue that conditions such as pedophilia are not, in fact, mental illnesses, Heyrman said, because there are no signifiers of the disorder other than the person's behavior.

"The only symptom is the crime, and so you can't look at how they're doing at Rushville and say, oh, this person is better," Heyrman said. "We can't test them by saying, 'Oh, we're going to bring children in and see if they abuse them. That would be an abomination.'"

And the statute highlights a paradox in the way the law treats some sex offenders, Heyrman said.

In criminal proceedings, prosecutors seek to hold them responsible for a choice they consciously made. But in seeking to commit them under the violent person statute, their past crimes can be characterized as the product of dangerous, uncontrollable compulsions.

"Ordinarily, we don't punish people for things that they can't avoid doing," Heyrman said. "It has been determined that we are going to hold Mr. McCormack criminally responsible for these crimes. We decided that Mr. McCormack was deserving of punishment because he chose to do this. And now we're saying … that we're not letting him go because he can't help himself."

The question is complicated, said Barbara Dorris, managing director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"The American judicial system says that if you commit a crime and you serve your time, you have a right to come out and start again," she said. "But sexual predators with children is probably the only crime where there is research and history and experience that say that they're very, very likely to commit this crime again. ... Then you have to say the safety of the children has to trump his right to come back out as if nothing happened."

Many of McCormack's accusers have said he abused them during their participation in an after-school program called S.A.F.E., a haven away from pressure to join gangs, attorney Pearlman said.

"He committed these crimes against the most vulnerable people possible, not just children, but children from neighborhoods that were predisposed to vulnerability," he said.

As of early 2016, the archdiocese said it has paid out a total of $139 million in clerical sexual abuse claims, but it has declined to release the total for the McCormack settlements. So far this year alone, though, the church has agreed to pay more than $7.5 million to settle lawsuits brought by men alleging abuse by McCormack, according to attorneys for those men.

Currently, eight lawsuits remain pending against the archdiocese alleging abuse by McCormack, according to Anne Maselli, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

Insurance for the archdiocese no longer covers claims involving McCormack. The church has a "long-term" program to sell off assets including real estate, to cover the costs, Maselli said in an email.

If McCormack is found to be sexually violent, the judge would decide if he will stay at Rushville or be released to the community on strict conditions.

"I think it is absolutely appropriate for the state to seek to have him remain essentially incarcerated or hospitalized until very good professionals believe that he is no longer a danger to society," Pearlman said. "I'm not sure whether he's ever taken full responsibility or accountability for the crimes he committed."

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

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