Chaplain’s Work With Abusers Was Little-Known

Posted November 19, 2008 at 6:55pm

In March 2000, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), attempting to quell a firestorm of Democratic criticism that he was anti-Catholic, appointed a Catholic priest as the new Chaplain for the House of Representatives. Hastert told his colleagues that the Rev. Daniel Coughlin came with the “highest recommendations” from Cardinal Francis George of the Chicago Archdiocese, and that Coughlin “has been a parish priest and spent the past several years counseling parish priests within the archdiocese.”

What Hastert did not say — and probably did not know — is that for 10 years Coughlin had been at the center of the Chicago Archdiocese’s efforts to manage priests who had been accused of sexual abuse. When the archdiocese removed an accused priest from ministry, Coughlin frequently became his caretaker, providing services ranging from room and board to spiritual support and advocacy.

Coughlin spent five years running a Catholic facility outside of Chicago where the archdiocese sent priests who were suspected of committing sexual offenses — though Coughlin was not responsible for overseeing the men. He then spent the next five years serving as the vicar for priests, the archdiocesan point man for counseling troubled priests, including those accused of sexual misconduct. Hastert apparently did not know the details of Coughlin’s service, and for the most part, they have never been made public.

“I was dealing with priests that had problems themselves and maybe were causing problems on a staff or causing problems in the community,” Coughlin said in an interview with Roll Call on Monday. “And so in that sense I was pastoring priests.”

In that role, shortly before he came to Washington, D.C., Coughlin petitioned Wisconsin corrections officials to release from prison a Chicago priest who had been convicted of molesting children, according to documents recently released by the archdiocese. The man is still incarcerated, and the Chicago cardinal last year asked Wisconsin to ignore Coughlin’s prior appeal and keep him in custody, concluding that he remains a threat to children and the church is incapable of caring for him.

Coughlin’s role in working with alleged sexual abusers is little-known. Even attorneys who have pursued abuse cases against the Chicago Archdiocese said they did not realize that the center Coughlin ran was where the archdiocese placed suspected priests, and several advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse said they had not realized that Chicago’s Coughlin was the same Coughlin who became the House Chaplain.

By the time he left the archdiocese for Washington, Coughlin had been professionally responsible at various times for at least a dozen priests who were ultimately forced out of the priesthood. But in most cases, under the archdiocese rules at the time, their conduct was not made public until years after Coughlin left.

Coughlin told Roll Call he did not create the policies for handling accused priests and had no authority to decide how the church should deal with the allegations against them. He was, he said, essentially the priest to these fallen clergy, and his role as vicar was to make sure that they “continued to be motivated to participate” in the protocols for their management that the archdiocese had created. Church officials point out that the archdiocese did not have power to compel compliance by its priests, and their participation in any disciplinary action was voluntary.

Coughlin said he was the point man for carrying out the church’s legal obligations to priests who, under church law, could not simply be fired and cut loose. “My job in that case was, when other people made judgments about whether this person is fit for ministry or not fit for ministry, or needs to take time away to go to treatment or be removed from ministry … mine was to make sure that priests were living according to the protocol that had been decided.”

Since Coughlin came to the House, the Chicago Archdiocese has declared that the procedures in place in the 1990s for managing sexual abuse allegations were inadequate. The archdiocese has settled lawsuits with dozens of alleged victims, paying out millions of dollars in damages and publicly naming for the first time several priests who had been under Coughlin’s care or supervision at various times in the 1990s.

House Members, meanwhile, have never heard about Coughlin’s work with pedophile priests in part because he was never asked about it during the vetting process used by Hastert to choose a new Chaplain, according to several sources familiar with the process.

In late 1999, Hastert convened a bipartisan committee of House Members to recommend candidates to replace the retiring Chaplain, and the committee recommended three clergymen — a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian and a Catholic. Hastert nominated the Presbyterian and was suddenly engulfed in a firestorm of partisan protest that he and the Republican House leadership were anti-Catholic.

By March 2000, Hastert — unable to quell the criticism and unable to get a House vote on his nominee for the chaplaincy — asked Cardinal George for advice. George apparently provided five new candidates; Coughlin and one other were interviewed by the Speaker’s staff.

According to Coughlin, Hastert’s staffers never delved into the details of his work in the archdiocese.

“They said, ‘Vicar for priests, now what does that mean?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m the cardinal’s representative to the priests and trying to pastor [as part of] the bishop’s care for his priests. … And I have to really say, most of the work is very confidential.’”

What Coughlin remembered about the interview was “that’s the word they liked the most. Confidential.”

A staff member who worked for Hastert at the time said the Speaker was primarily concerned with finding a Chaplain who could serve as a pastor to Members and also serve as a healer for the House to repair the relationships that had been frayed by the bitterness of the debate over the chaplaincy.

Confidentiality was a critical quality for anyone who would be discussing sensitive private matters with Members, this source said. Furthermore, one of the Chaplain candidates had suggested he might want to write a book about his experiences in the job, which had set off alarm bells in the Speaker’s office.

This source said the search committee knew about Coughlin’s prior positions but had not delved into the details of his work with priests, in part because he had a sterling recommendation from the cardinal.

The original search committee that Hastert created had disbanded and did not vet Coughlin. Democrats accepted his appointment, but their hard feelings about the process remained evident. Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) took to the floor and wished Coughlin well, but said, “He is an individual we have not met.”

The priest sex abuse scandal did not become a major national story until a year or two later, when a wave of allegations emerged. In 2002, church officials met in Dallas to create new, stricter polices toward priests accused of sexual misconduct, and the Chicago Archdiocese dismissed several priests, including some whom Coughlin had cared for.