Coughlin Worked With Chicago’s Fallen Priests

Posted November 19, 2008 at 6:37pm

Before he became the minister for Members of Congress, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin ministered to a very different — and very troubled — flock.

Beginning in 1990, Coughlin was the director for the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House in Mundelein, Ill. The Web site for the retreat house describes it “as a place of prayer and retreat,” and invites visitors to “come away to pray.”

But it also has served since the early 1990s as a place where the Archdiocese of Chicago sends priests when they are removed from ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct.

Using public records searches, news archives and church assignment logs maintained by BishopAccountability.org, Roll Call was able to establish that at least 10 priests who were alleged abusers had Stritch mailing addresses or were otherwise assigned there during the 10 years Coughlin was directing the retreat or managing personnel matters at the archdiocese headquarters.

The archdiocese has since declared that for all of these priests, “an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor has been substantiated.” Nine of the priests were named in lawsuits or settlements that the archdiocese struck with abuse victims after the sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002, when Coughlin was gone.

Coughlin told Roll Call that the priests occupied a separate wing of the retreat center called Koenig Hall that had once been a convent for women working at the retreat.

“When somebody had to be removed immediately from his assignment, they went to the retreat house” until the archdiocese decided what to do with them, Coughlin said. “All the investigations had been going on — by other people and not by me — and then it was decided that this man had to go either to alcohol treatment center or this person will probably never be going back to ministry but he needs to live according to a very strict protocol.”

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese confirmed that, “As director of the Stritch Retreat House, Father Coughlin was responsible for the development and presentation of spiritual retreat programs for priests, deacons and others. He was not responsible for the management, supervision or ongoing monitoring of priests removed from ministry. He was aware of their presence at Koenig Hall and he cooperated with programs for their management.”

In the spring of 1995, Coughlin left the Stritch retreat to become vicar for priests for the archdiocese, a job he shared with one other person. He once wrote that in this position, “I oversee the individual protocols established for priests who are withdrawn from ministry,” and he told Roll Call that he and his colleague “were referred to by the priests as ‘the clergy police.’” But he later clarified that his job was not to oversee the protocols, but to work with the priests who were living under those restrictions.

Coughlin said the protocols for managing suspected sex offenders were developed by a board set up by the cardinal, often in consultation with civil authorities, and accused priests were not separated from the priesthood because it was believed the church could play a role in keeping them from committing additional offenses.

While living under the protocols established by the archdiocese, a priest would receive treatment and pastoral care, and his interactions with other people could be closely monitored.

But Coughlin said some priests chafed under these rules and decided to quit the priesthood. In those cases, “even though I would feel sometimes, ‘Well, this is probably best for the church,’ I became more anxious because we were trying to control this as much as we could,” Coughlin said. A priest’s departure “led me to great prayer for this man and his future and whoever he was meeting because now he wasn’t under our control at all.”

One of Coughlin’s old charges remains in the news. Coughlin’s former boss, Cardinal Francis George — who recommended Coughlin for the House job — said in a deposition in January that Coughlin in the late 1990s was trying to win the release of the Rev. Norbert Maday, a priest imprisoned on child molestation charges in Wisconsin who the archdiocese has since concluded is a threat to children and should remain in custody indefinitely.

In a May 1999 letter to Wisconsin prison officials, Coughlin outlined the Chicago Archdiocese systems for care and monitoring of priests accused of abuse, and he said,“we would be pleased to receive Norbert Maday into the Archdiocese of Chicago system, outlined above. We would also accept financial responsibility for his maintenance … this would relieve the State of Wisconsin from the financial burden of caring for Maday.”

In a deposition given in January to lawyers for abuse victims, George said, “I have never seen this before … I didn’t approve this letter.” The archdiocese provided Roll Call with an August 2007 letter in which George told Wisconsin officials that he felt “the situation has changed” and the church could not care for Maday. He explained that he was asking the Vatican to remove Maday from the priesthood, ending the archdiocese’s responsibility for him. The request was granted, and Maday is no longer a priest.

Maday remains in custody in Wisconsin — he was convicted of taking boys to a Wisconsin retreat and molesting them there, giving the state jurisdiction over those cases. His prison sentence is coming to an end, but the state has petitioned the courts to declare him a sexual offender and remand him to custody for treatment indefinitely. A hearing in Maday’s case is scheduled for Dec. 19.

George said in his deposition, “I’d come to know of the case in more detail … I consider him a danger to children and I made that case to the State and asked [them] to keep him in some sense in custody to protect children.”

But Coughlin said that while he was in the archdiocese, his job was to provide whatever care he could to Maday.

“The cardinal couldn’t be visiting him in prison, but still, this is one of the corporal works of mercy” — obligations for Catholic faithful — “visiting the sick and visiting the imprisoned. So I was the one that would be visiting him in prison,” Coughlin said.

And while other prisoners have spouses or children to advocate for their interests with prison officials, priests don’t have those support systems, so it falls to the church to be their advocate. And in this case, it fell to Coughlin.

Coughlin said Maday was originally held in solitary confinement, and while he came to understand that prison officials believed this was for Maday’s own safety, Coughlin thought it was excessive and petitioned to have the priest moved out of solitary. The Chicago Archdiocese also convinced Wisconsin officials to allow Maday’s mother’s coffin to be brought to his prison for a funeral service, a privilege not extended to other inmates.

In 2006, after another priest sex abuse case became public, George commissioned several independent reviews of the Chicago Archdiocese procedures for handling allegations against priests. The reviewers described major flaws in the system.

One study was particularly critical of the Stritch retreat, where accused priests were essentially living without monitors and had master keys to the building — including rooms where other retreat visitors slept. Coughlin said the system in place was much stricter when he ran the center before 1995, and the 2006 report gave no indication at what point the monitoring protocols at the center had lapsed.

The archdiocese now says it has beefed up its reporting requirements for accused priests living at the retreat, including installing security cameras and changing locks, and otherwise has significantly reformed its procedures for managing allegations of sex abuse.