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Survivor Narratives

Vincent McCaffrey

Father Vincent McCaffrey warned at least one of the children he was sexually abusing to keep it a secret. Those threats worked; the survivor remained silent for years. But when he summoned the courage to come forward in 2004, his experience could not have come as any surprise to the Archdiocese of Chicago. Church officials had known for decades about McCaffrey’s sexual interest in children.

There are many survivors of McCaffrey’s abuse. One died by suicide. All have lived with mental, physical, and emotional struggles. As one survivor testified, “I just have very little faith and trust in people. I mean, I had an experience with this man who, the way I was raised, [priests] were next to God. For a person of that caliber and stature to do what he had done to me was beyond my belief. To this day, I tend to see the darker side of people than the better side.” The survivor added: “The archdiocese is just as much to blame as Vincent McCaffrey is.”

McCaffrey’s abuse took many forms, including fondling, oral sex, and anal penetration. He used psychological manipulation and strategy to isolate and overpower his victims, often taking the children to secluded cabins, forcing them to drink alcohol, and drugging them. One survivor remembered a trip with McCaffrey when he was 13 or 14: “I remember being in the hot tub after playing racquetball and him holding me down and me coming up gasping for air, spitting water, and that was his way of intimidating us and letting us know that he would physically take us if need be.” Another survivor reported that McCaffrey molested him more than 200 times from the time he was a prepubescent boy until his high school graduation.

McCaffrey is one of the most well-known and notorious sex abusers in the country. Unlike most priests profiled in this report, McCaffrey was prosecuted and sentenced for his crimes—his aggravated abuse of children increased his federal child pornography sentence to the 20 year statutory maximum, the longest sentence anyone had received for possession of child pornography at the time. By his own admissions under oath at his criminal sentencing, McCaffrey abused more than a dozen prepubescent children, all of whom he accessed through his role as priest. The total number of times McCaffrey has abused children is estimated to be in the hundreds.

Archdiocesan officials knew about McCaffrey’s patterns of abuse as early as 1979; so did several of his fellow clerics. Yet the archdiocese declined to remove McCaffrey from ministry. He was able to continue molesting and abusing children until his 1993 resignation—“hundreds of times” according to his own testimony. McCaffrey admitted it is hard for him to keep track of the children he abused because he is a “serial molester” and “predator” “who cannot be cured.”

Despite the severity of McCaffrey’s abuse, the archdiocese’s internal discussions minimized it and used euphemisms rather than accurately naming him as a predator. In a 1989 memo, for example, the vicar for priests recounted his phone conversation with a concerned priest who “recently heard from another priest some gossip about why [McCaffrey] left St. Josaphat’s.” The vicar explained he kept the priest in the dark about McCaffrey’s “problem.”

These efforts to conceal McCaffrey’s abuse reflect a larger ethos that prioritized the church’s reputation over children’s safety. In a 1989 memo to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the vicar for priests recommended McCaffrey’s transfer from Saint Josaphat in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood due to an anonymous report that McCaffrey was abusing parish boys. The vicar acknowledged McCaffrey was a “pedophile” yet concluded “the best thing would be for Vince to move” to another parish to avoid “the risk of [Saint Josaphat] being hurt in any way.” “The sad thing,” the vicar admitted, “is that this threat will hang over Vince until the day he dies.”

The vicar acknowledged McCaffrey was a “pedophile” yet concluded “the best thing would be for Vince to move” to another parish to avoid “the risk of [Saint Josaphat] being hurt in any way.”

The archdiocese’s preoccupation with concealing McCaffrey’s abuse extended across the institution. In 1980, the pastor of Our Lady of Loretto in Hometown wrote a letter to the archdiocese’s personnel board after a teenage boy and his parents reported McCaffrey’s abuse to local police. The pastor shared his “gut feeling” that McCaffrey’s “friendship with some of the young kids” in the area reflected “ground work . . . being laid” for abuse. Still, the pastor’s primary concern was not for the children but rather for the containment of scandal. He expressed gratitude that the police “have been very good in keeping the situation quiet” and admitted lying to parishioners about the reason for McCaffrey’s recent absence: “This is a small town and I had to tell the people he was sick and that it was alcoholism to stop the speculation.” Yet the pastor too had been a victim of the archdiocese’s silence; he was kept in the dark about McCaffrey’s “psychological problem” when the church abruptly transferred him to Our Lady of Loretto only one year earlier: “When I find his former Pastor, the Vicar of the area and the Personnel Board all know of the problems and no one tells the ‘receiving Pastor,’ I think something is wrong. Please review your policy in this matter.”

Archdiocesan documents related to McCaffrey highlight the same pattern over and over again—the use of euphemisms, lack of concern for the children being abused, and efforts to conceal and cover up McCaffrey’s abuse. This permitted, and even encouraged, McCaffrey’s continued abuse of children over several decades.

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*