November 14, 2007

BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist

Jim Cummins died 18 days before this week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Bishops. But if it’s possible to rage in heaven, then surely Jim is raging now at Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George.

Cardinal George, just elected president of the bishops’ conference, is a brilliant man who can be warm, thoughtful and funny. But he can also be dismissive, distant and icy, particularly when it comes to questions of the church’s accountability and transparency on the issue of sex abuse by clergy.

As the bishops met in Baltimore on Tuesday, Sun-Times religion reporter Susan Hogan/Albach broke the story of a letter the cardinal sent earlier this year to parents of a victim. While apologizing for "the terrible abuse" suffered by their now-adult son by two Chicago priests when he was a child, the cardinal combined his heartfelt apology with an equally heartfelt denunciation.

Money, the cardinal wrote, was behind proposed Illinois legislation that would waive the statute of limitations, allowing adults to come forward years after abuse occurred and sue their abusers. "This is irresponsible, is not about the safety of children as the sponsor claims and is clearly, to me at least, about money," George wrote.

Cummins, who died last month of cancer at 62, can’t argue with the cardinal, but I can.

He was a friend and colleague. An award-winning NBC News correspondent, he was the network’s bureau chief in Dallas in 2002 when the U.S. Conference of Bishops met there that year. It was the height of the sex-abuse scandal, a time when Boston’s then-Cardinal Bernard Law was being forced to confront his protection of predator priests before the Vatican whisked him away to Rome, where he remains a prince in good standing.

In the course of covering the unfolding scandal, Cummins interviewed parents of an abuse victim, asking what had become of their son. "He hanged himself," they told him. It was at that point in the interview, Cummins later said, that his knees went weak and he rushed from the room to regain his composure. A flood of grief and memory overtook him.

At 17, a star athlete and altar boy in Iowa, Cummins was molested by a priest who went on to become the vicar general of the Dubuque Archdiocese before dying drunk in a car crash. Cummins’ parents confronted the archdiocese back then but nothing happened. "No one ever spoke of it again," Cummins said.

Sometimes we bury our memories to save our sanity. But the pain doesn’t die. And though Cummins went on to have a successful career, a wonderful wife and family, he also periodically suffered depressions he didn’t understand. Until 2002. Until he couldn’t keep it buried anymore.

Yes, he sued, but it was never about the money. It took courage to confront the church. The church fought back, claimed Cummins’ success as a network correspondent proved he hadn’t been damaged. But days before trial, the archdiocese settled out of court with Cummins and others.

Cummins vowed to spend the rest of his life helping victims of sexual abuse, but esophageal cancer had another plan.

George bristled at reporters Monday in Baltimore when asked about the Sun-Times article, reminding us, as he often does, that we don’t just report the news but "select" certain stories.

I’m not going to disagree.

But the church writes its own script. And a recent sermon by Chicago Bishop Thomas Paprocki inspired more reporters’ questions for the cardinal.

Paprocki recently said at a mass for lawyers that abuse suits undermine "the charitable works and religious freedom of the church" and are functionally attacks against bishops and priests inspired by the devil. Paprocki claims that isn’t a criticism of victims. OK, but it’s hardly a healing affirmation, either.

The church understandably may be sick of playing defense. But its offense is awful.

At 17, my friend Jim Cummins was molested by a priest. Yes, he sued, but it was never about the money.