A new report by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in that state is too long for most readers to absorb in a day or two, but that didn’t stop Liz Murphy from zeroing in on what she most wanted to find out.
Murphy, an abuse survivor who lives in Baltimore, flipped through the report’s 696 pages one afternoon last week and checked whether it contained any black marks. When she saw that it didn’t, she said that alone told her it had more healing power than the one published by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office last month after a review by a Baltimore judge.
“This one has no redactions,” said Murphy, a survivor of sexual assault at the hands of the late John Merzbacher, a notorious former Catholic middle school teacher, in the 1970s. “That in and of itself makes this one more transparent. That kind of openness makes all the difference.”
The Illinois report, published last week after a five-year investigation, identifies 451 priests, brothers and other Catholic employees who sexually abused a staggering 1,997 children in Illinois between 1950 and 2019. It portrays church leaders as reluctant to confront accused clergy and slow to acknowledge the extent of the abuse, and it concludes they regularly failed to warn parishioners about likely abusers in their midst.
The results strongly echo the document completed by former Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s team of state investigators after their four-year probe, which was released in redacted form April 5. That 463-page document details the actions of 156 church staff who abused more than 600 children in the Archdiocese of Baltimore between the 1940s and 2000s. It, too, accuses church leaders of downplaying and covering up abuse.
“Time and again, bishops and other leaders in the church displayed empathy for the abusers that far outweighed any compassion shown to the children who were abused,” the Maryland report reads. “These leaders repeatedly accepted the word of abusers over that of victims and their families.”
In some respects, it’s hard to draw direct comparisons between the shorter, less comprehensive Maryland report and the one released by Illinois.
The Illinois team boasted 30 investigators; Frosh’s, which ran the Maryland investigation from 2018 to 2022, employed only a handful at a time. The Illinois group had the resources to target all six Roman Catholic dioceses in the state, while Frosh has said his team had little choice but to focus on the Archdiocese of Baltimore, leaving Maryland’s other Catholic jurisdictions — the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware — for later scrutiny.
David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said it didn’t take long for him to realize the Illinois Attorney General’s Office had poured more resources into its five-year probe than Maryland’s did during its four-year operation.
Lorenz has high praise for the Maryland investigators’ “sincere and compassionate” treatment of survivors during its probe, and he has called the publication of the Maryland report a triumph he wasn’t sure would ever come to pass.
He’s pleased, he says, that both attorneys general included information crucial to survivors and their families that some state reports do not, such as dates of abusers’ ordinations and detailed work histories for them.
But the longtime advocate said he couldn’t help being impressed that the Illinois report — which is accompanied by a searchable web version on its attorney general’s website — includes fuller narratives about abusers than Maryland’s does, at least where the information is available. In every case possible, Lorenz said, it also weaves the often plaintive voices of their survivors into the accounts.
“I’m not criticizing Maryland’s investigators, because I believe they did an incredible job with the resources they had. But I think [Maryland’s] narrative sections come across as a little more antiseptic,” Lorenz said. “It’s great that Illinois got the survivors’ voices in there as much as they did. It gives the report more ‘oomph.’”
Another prominent survivor advocate agrees. Terry McKiernan is president of BishopAccountability.org, a research center and information clearinghouse that focuses on sexual abuse by Catholic clerics.
McKiernan points out the Maryland report is the 20th of its kind to be produced since 2002, when the abuse crisis exploded in the United States in the wake of a Boston Globe investigative series on the subject, and Illinois’ is the 21st.
While each has its strengths, McKiernan says he considers the Illinois product the most thoughtful, comprehensive and sensitive toward both survivors and representatives of the Catholic faith he has seen. He points to the comprehensive history it includes of each of the six dioceses, as well as the fact that it incorporates information from hundreds of interviews with survivors, has a section dedicated to data analysis, and includes 30 pages of recommendations for improvements. Many involve standardizing policies across the state.
That’s in contrast to the two recommendations the Maryland document made. The first, for Maryland to remove statutes of limitations for civil actions involving child sex abuse, was signed into law by Gov. Wes Moore in April. The second is for the Baltimore archdiocese to add deacons and lay employees to its public list of credibly accused abusers. The archdiocese has said several times since April that it was reviewing its list “in light of the attorney general’s report” and expected to add more names soon.
“It’s impressive. It has manpower, focus and expertise,” McKiernan says of the Illinois report. “There’s a kind of a feeling of thinking it through that you just don’t often encounter in these reports.”
Still, several critics cited what they see as weaknesses in both investigations. Murphy decries the fact that neither attorney general called for criminal prosecutions as a result of the probes. And Lorenz and McKiernan say the Catholic Church emerged as less than forthcoming in both reports.
The Illinois investigators, for example, published the names of 149 offenders who the six dioceses do not list on their websites. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago said that’s because even though the abusers allegedly acted in Illinois, most are members of Catholic religious orders, not the dioceses proper. The Baltimore archdiocese has not made such a distinction in its list since 2002, although survivors have criticized its criteria for inclusion as too narrow otherwise and said it, too, contains multiple omissions.
Cupich has also said he needs find out how Illinois investigators substantiated the claims of abuse.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul pushed back Friday on Cupich’s remarks, noting many of the names in his report’s section on the Chicago archdiocese came from church records. As for the report as a whole, “all 451 listed clerics and brothers included in our report have been substantiated by a Catholic source, either by an Illinois diocese, a non-Illinois diocese or a religious order,” Raoul said.
The issue of redactions, meanwhile, remains controversial in Maryland. After Frosh’s office completed its report in November, the Baltimore archdiocese paid lawyers to argue in Baltimore Circuit Court on behalf of some employees listed in the report but not accused of abuse that their names should be kept confidential.
The judge ordered that 15 names be redacted, a move that made Maryland’s abuse report one of just three to take such a measure.
The blockbuster Pennsylvania grand jury report of 2018, which named more than 300 offenders, has 11 redactions, the result of a ruling by the state Supreme Court that the men had insufficient opportunity to respond to allegations. A 2003 report on the Diocese of Rockville Center, New York, and a 2022 probe of the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, kept offenders’ names anonymous.
“Because secrecy is one of the main causes of the Catholic abuse crisis, transparency — to the extent the law and the courts permit — is the most beneficial approach,” McKiernan says.
One reason the Illinois report could publish all names, McKiernan said, is that prosecutors made the unusual decision not to employ grand juries. The grand jury approach brings with it secrecy provisions that can make transparency complicated.
Even before the redacted version of the Maryland report was published, victim advocates demanded the archdiocese name everyone accused of abuse and cover-ups in the report. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori has maintained the church cannot release redacted names because of the judge’s order. Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown has said that’s not accurate because the bulk of the information in the report was derived from the archdiocese’s files and the church can disclose its own information.
A spokeswoman for Brown’s office said probes into the two other Catholic dioceses with parishes in the state are “ongoing.”