CHICAGO — Top leaders at the Archdiocese of Chicago helped hide the sexual abuse of children as they struggled to contain a growing crisis, according to thousands of pages of internal documents that also raise new questions about how Cardinal Francis George handled the allegations even after the church adopted reforms.
The documents, released through settlements between lawyers for the archdiocese and victims, describe how priests for decades were moved from parish to parish while the archdiocese hid the clerics’ histories from the public, often with the approval of the late Cardinals John Cody and Joseph Bernardin.
Although the abuse documented in the files occurred before George became archbishop in 1997, many victims did not come forward until after he was appointed and after US bishops pledged in 2002 to keep all accused priests out of ministry.
George delayed removing the Rev. Joseph R. Bennett, despite learning that the priest had been accused of sexually abusing girls and boys decades earlier. Even the board the cardinal appointed to help him evaluate abuse claims advised George that Bennett should be removed.
‘‘I realize this creates a rather awkward situation, but I believe I need to reflect on this matter further,’’ George wrote in a Nov. 7, 2005, letter to an archdiocese child protection official. Also against the advice of his board, George had Bennett monitored by another priest who was a friend and who vacationed with Bennett.
Allegations against Bennett continued well after 2002. He has denied any wrongdoing in his communications with the archdiocese, but was forced out of ministry on Feb. 3, 2006, according to the newly public documents.
George tried to get another priest, Norbert Maday, released early from a Wisconsin prison, where he was serving time after a 1994 conviction for molesting two boys, documents show.
He also has apologized for how he handled allegations against former priest Daniel McCormack, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to abusing five children and whose case prompted an internal investigation of how the archdiocese responds to abuse claims.
‘‘The issue is not when the abuse happened; the issue is what they did once it was reported,’’ said Chicago lawyer Marc Pearlman, who has represented about 200 victims of clergy abuse in the Chicago area.
While disturbing stories of clergy sexual abuse have wrenched the Roman Catholic Church across the globe, the newly released documents offer the broadest look yet into how one of its largest and most prominent American dioceses responded to the scandal, even years after the abuse occurred.
The documents, posted online Tuesday by victims’ lawyers, cover only 30 of the at least 65 clergy members for whom the archdiocese says it has substantiated claims of child abuse. Vatican documents related to the 30 cases were not included, under the negotiated terms of the disclosure. Victims’ attorneys say they’re working to get files on the other 35 priests.
The files are being released as George, a 77-year-old cancer survivor, awaits permission from Pope Francis to retire. Naming a successor for George will be the pope’s first major appointment in the US church.
In a letter distributed to parishes last week, George apologized for the abuse, and said the disclosures are an attempt to help victims heal.
The more than 6,000 pages include internal communications between church officials, disturbing testimony about specific abuses, meeting schedules where allegations were discussed, and letters from anguished parishioners.
The names of victims and details considered private under mental health laws were redacted.
When a young woman reported in 1970 that she had been abused as a teen, for example, Cody assured the priest that the ‘‘whole matter has been forgotten’’ because ‘‘no good can come of trying to prove or disprove the allegations.’’
Accused priests often were quietly sent away for a time for treatment or training programs. When they returned, officials often assigned them to new parishes and asked other priests to monitor them around children.
After a 13-year-old boy reported in 1979 that a priest raped him and later threatened him at gunpoint to keep quiet, the Archdiocese of Chicago assured the boy’s parents that although the cleric avoided prosecution, he would receive treatment and have no further contact with minors.
But the Rev. William Cloutier, who already had been accused of molesting other children, was returned to ministry a year later and accused of more abuse before he resigned in 1993, two years after the boy’s parents filed a lawsuit.
Officials took no action against Cloutier over his earliest transgressions because he ‘‘sounded repentant,’’ according to internal archdiocese documents released Tuesday that show how the archdiocese tried to contain a mounting scandal over child sexual abuse.