Cardinal Francis E. George, Who Urged ‘Zero Tolerance’ in Abuse Scandal, Dies at 78
By LAURIE GOODSTEINAPRIL 17, 2015
Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago in Rome in 2005. Credit Peter Dejong/Associated Press
Cardinal Francis E. George, who was the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago for 17 years and helped shape the American Catholic bishops’ response to the child sexual abuse scandal and their resistance to the Obama health plan’s contraception coverage, died on Friday at his residence in Chicago. He was 78.
The cause was cancer, the archdiocese said. Discovered in 2006, the cancer originated in his bladder and spread. But Cardinal George continued to work until November, when he stepped down. In December he announced that experimental treatments he had received had failed.
A quiet, cerebral man, Cardinal George was appointed to lead the Chicago archdiocese by Pope John Paul II. He was the first Chicago native to hold the seat.
It was his prominent role in responding to the sexual abuse scandal in 2002 that first made Cardinal George a national figure. Although it would be five years before he was named president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he helped persuade his brother bishops to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy, barring priests who had been credibly accused of abuse from serving in ministry.
He was credited with then shepherding the policy change through an initially resistant Vatican.
Cardinal George became a hero to many Catholic traditionalists in the United States and in Rome, where he had worked for a dozen years as vicar general of his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The foster care program of Catholic Charities closed in 2011 after he refused to comply with an Illinois state requirement that charities that receive state funding must not reject same-sex couples as potential foster care and adoptive parents.
Though a new English translation of the Roman Missal was scorned by many who attend Mass as awkward and full of antiquated phrases, he pushed for it nevertheless, resisting the entreaties of some bishops and priests who had hoped for a more accessible translation.
At the pinnacle of his power, as president of the bishops conference from 2007 to 2010, Cardinal George greeted the election of his fellow-Chicagoan Barack Obama as president in 2008 with a blunt letter warning him not to consider expanding abortion rights.
The bishops conference supported government health care reform, but early on Cardinal George took the lead in the group’s opposition to Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act because of its mandate that employers include coverage of birth control in their health plans.
Cardinal George often said, however, that it was unfair that he or his church was typecast as conservative. Indeed, he defended the rights of immigrant farmworkers and devoted archdiocesan resources to housing the elderly and the poor, in keeping with the church’s tradition of promoting social justice.
“I tried to be present in the life of the poor,” he said when asked in an interview with The New York Times in November what he would like to be remembered for.
The interview was in Baltimore, at the last bishops’ conference he attended. When a priest passing by congratulated him on his retirement and said, “Enjoy your years,” Cardinal George replied with his dour sense of humor, “Or months or days.”
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Francis Eugene George was born in Chicago on Jan. 16, 1937. He attended Catholic schools and showed an early interest in joining the priesthood. His father was an engineer with the public school system, and his mother had worked at an advertising agency, according to The Chicago Tribune. Both were active Catholics. His survivors include an older sister, Margaret.
At 13 he came down with polio, which left him with a limp for the rest of his life. He was rejected by a diocesan high school seminary because of his disability, so he attended a boarding school run by the Oblates religious order, which is dedicated to ministering to the poor.