CHICAGO - Cardinal Francis George's grim concession that he failed to act soon enough to stanch a fresh priest abuse scandal in the nation's third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese has cast new doubt on reforms taken by U.S. bishops less than four years ago.
George, who played a prominent role in developing the church's response to the clergy abuse scandal that erupted in 2002, accepted blame Thursday for his archdiocese's failure to remove a priest after allegations arose months before he was charged with sexual abuse two weeks ago.
"We thought this was done, or at least contained, and it doesn't seem to have been," a weary-looking George said during a public mea culpa at Holy Name Cathedral.
Defenders of the U.S. Catholic church claim the clergy abuse crisis is ebbing after four years of policy changes and massive settlements with victims.
But observers say the Chicago allegations are especially troubling because they occurred on the watch of George, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a Vatican favorite.
"This should be a wake-up call for the all the dioceses in the country to look at themselves," said Anne Burke, an Illinois Appellate Court judge and the former leader of the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel American bishops created at the height of the clergy abuse crisis in 2002. "Are we really doing it right?"
Yet other church observers on Friday cautioned against using the Chicago incidents to discredit the reforms that U.S. bishops adopted in 2002.
"I don't think it's cause for universal alarm that the system is breaking down," said Russell Shaw, a Catholic writer and former spokesman for the bishops' conference.
The Chicago archdiocese has been under fire since Jan. 21, when the Rev. Daniel McCormack, 37, was charged with sexual abuse after allegedly fondling two boys. He was charged Wednesday with sexually abusing a third boy and was released Thursday on $300,000 bond. McCormack's attorney has insisted he is innocent.
The archdiocese has acknowledged that one of the charges stems from an allegation of sexual abuse first made in August, but the priest was not removed until the day he was charged.
According to church law for the United States under the 2002 reforms, if there is "sufficient evidence" that a minor has been abused, the bishop will withdraw the accused clergyman from any parish work or public participation in Mass until a church investigation is completed under the guidance of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"I should have found some way to take him out (sooner)," George said Thursday. "I wasn't vigilant enough."
The archdiocese also is investigating accusations that another priest abused a minor more than 35 years ago. The allegations first were made about two years ago, but the archdiocese took no action until the priest was removed Tuesday. No charges have been filed.
Despite enacting widespread reforms, the bishops still have not been able to assert control over the crisis, which has been battering dioceses for more than four years.
Lawmakers in Ohio, Colorado and several other states have proposed measures that would make it easier for victims to sue, either by extending the statutes of limitation or lifting state-mandated caps on damages for charities.
Dioceses have already paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements with victims since 2002 - and have paid more than $1 billion in abuse-related costs since 1950.
A proposed agreement announced this week in the bankruptcy case of the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., contained unprecedented concessions that are sure to create pressure for similar settlements in other dioceses.
Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, president of the bishops' conference, agreed to go to each parish where abuse occurred and identify the perpetrator, devote space in the diocesan newspaper for victims to write about their experiences and lobby for abolition of statutes of limitation on sex crimes. Most U.S. bishops in other states have been lobbying against such legal changes.
That the most recent high-profile breakdown occurred on George's watch is likely to reverberate at dioceses around the nation, said David Gibson, a former Vatican radio newsman and author of "The Coming Catholic Church."
"I don't think it necessarily calls for a technical fix, but it's important for what it says about the credibility of the bishops and the confidence Catholics have in their hierarchy," Gibson said.
Gibson said it's unlikely that the Chicago allegations will serve as an impetus for U.S. bishops to revisit the sexual-abuse reform measures.
But victim advocates say the acknowledged missteps by George offer more evidence that church leaders still cannot be trusted to monitor their dioceses.
"Not one bishop has not been forced to resign because of the way he's handled these cases," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "If this were happening in any other environment, the CEO would be out the door."
AP religion writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.