Diocese apologizes for priest remarks
April 18, 2002|By David Heinzmann, Tribune staff reporter.
Catholic Diocese of Joliet officials scrambled Wednesday to apologize for the comments of a priest who said he had “no sympathy” for victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
After the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., suspended former Joliet priest Rev. Anthony J. Ross because of an allegation that he sexually abused a teenage boy in Illinois in 1983, his brother, Rev. Richard Ross of Joliet, made inflammatory remarks that were printed in a newspaper Wednesday.
“I don’t have much sympathy for people who somehow couldn’t stop whatever happened,” Richard Ross told the Joliet Herald-News. “I’ll take all of these people who were abused, and I’ll abuse them with a baseball bat. You can quote me on that.”
The Joliet Diocese issued an apology Wednesday afternoon for Ross’ statements, which Bishop Joseph Imesch called “absolutely contrary to our beliefs and sensitivities and all that we stand for.”
The Santa Rosa Diocese has placed Anthony Ross on administrative leave while the allegation is investigated. Church officials there said they would cooperate with any police investigation. Anthony Ross has been at Santa Rosa since 1993, although he was officially assigned to Joliet until 1997, church officials said. Santa Rosa church officials said Ross requested the relocation. In California, Anthony Ross’ assignments included prison ministry and AIDS Ministry Outreach but no parish assignments, church officials said.
No criminal charges have been filed in the case.
Diocese spokeswoman Sister Judith Davies said Wednesday that church officials have not been able to reach Richard Ross, but the comments “will be addressed with Father Ross.”
The statement from Imesch’s office said that Ross’ remarks were out of character with his career of service as a priest.
“All can attest to Father Richard Ross’ lifelong excellent reputation for faith-filled and dedicated ministry, especially to those in need. Therefore, we cannot reconcile his statements with his exemplary ministry, nor can we attempt to explain them.
“We can only apologize on behalf of ourselves, the clergy, and all of our parishioners to all victims, their families and to all who are hurt by what was said.”
Attempts to reach Richard Ross at St. Bernard’s Parish, where he is pastor, were unsuccessful.
Anthony Ross is the fourth priest with a connection to the Joliet Diocese in three weeks to be removed from his duties because of allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct with boys.
In the first week of April the diocese removed Rev. Gary Berthiaume from his position as chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove after it was revealed that he had been convicted of molesting a child in Michigan 24 years ago. Last week, Rev. Phillip Dedera was removed from his position as a chaplain at Edward Hospital in Naperville and chaplain at St. Patrick’s Residence, a Naperville nursing home.
Church officials said they had received a “credible” allegation that Dedera sexually abused a teenager in 1974 while he was serving at St. Andrew Parish in Romeoville. Diocesan officials said they believe the allegation against Dedera is factual and warrants no further investigation. He is receiving counseling.
Monday, the diocese acknowledged that Rev. Carroll Howlin has been suspended from his ministry in rural Kentucky, where he has worked as a missionary since 1977. Howlin is accused by a former seminarian of sexual abuse while he taught at St. Charles of Borromeo Seminary near Romeoville.
FOR THE RECORD – Additional material published April 19, 2002:
CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS.
A story in Thursday’s Metro section incorrectly reported that Rev. Anthony J. Ross, who has been accused of sexually molesting a teenage boy in 1983 in the diocese of Joliet, had been placed on administrative leave by the diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif. In fact, Ross remains on active duty in prison ministry in California while the Santa Rosa diocese investigates the allegation. The incorrect information was supplied by the diocese of Joliet.
Joliet diocese releases report on priest abuse
Paper details handling of allegations and lawsuits, along with work to prevent further problems
“He’s trying to be as completely open as he can,” Delaney said. “This is a risk on our part, to be honest with you. … This will be available in the Catholic newspaper, in the back of churches, on the Web site.”
The report lists the numbers of allegations against priests in two recent fiscal years.
The report states there were nine in 2005-06 and seven in fiscal year 2006-07. However, none of the cases was current, dating from 1967 to 1991, and the names of priests in all credible cases of abuse are listed on the diocesan Web site, Delaney said.
The report also provides figures such as settlements, totaling $1.8 million for the two-year period, and attorney’s fees of $582,964. A total of 15 lawsuits against six priests were settled in 2006-07.
The report says the diocese has done criminal background checks on 22,550 employees or people of responsibility in the parish, and 63,000 children have been trained to recognize the signs of abuse.
Sartain was installed as bishop in 2006, after Joseph Imesch served as bishop for more than 25 years. Imesch’s tenure was rocked in its last years by criticism of his handling of sex-abuse claims against priests.
The diocese was formed in 1948 and is home to about 650,000 Catholics, most of whom live in DuPage and Will Counties.
The diocese’s report comes the day before a DuPage County jury will listen to opening statements in a civil case to decide whether a priest in the Joliet diocese convicted of sexually abusing students at a Hinsdale Catholic school in the 1980s should be committed to a state institution.
Rev. Fred Lenczycki, 62, is the first member of the clergy in the state to face incarceration under the Illinois Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act.
Lenczycki was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to 5 years after pleading guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse of three boys. In April 2006, a month before Lenczycki was to be released on good behavior, the commitment act was invoked.
The attorney general’s office claims that Lenczycki remains a threat to children and continues to suffer from a series of mental disorders because of his sexual desires. Defense attorneys claim that he has completed his prison sentence and that with treatment and counseling, there is no threat.
Lenczycki was removed from the ministry in 2002, according to the diocese Web site.
Jury selection started Monday and lasted until Thursday. The hearing is expected to continue into next week.
Shorewood priest charged
Man accused of molesting St. Charles boy
The Rev. Alejandro Flores, 37, also was charged with four counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and two counts of criminal sexual assault for allegedly molesting the boy, now 13, at a West Chicago church where Flores was assigned as a seminarian, according to the Kane County state’s attorney’s office.
State’s Attorney John Barsanti said Flores abused the St. Charles boy between Jan. 1, 2005, and Jan. 1, 2010.
Flores was released from the hospital Wednesday and was in the custody of Kane County authorities. He was expected to be booked into the county jail later Wednesday and was to appear before a judge Thursday afternoon.
Flores was formally charged Friday, though the charge remained sealed until he was well enough to be taken in custody. The Bolivian-born priest had been hospitalized after reportedly trying to kill himself by leaping from the balcony. His bail was set at $1 million, Barsanti said. Flores must surrender his passport should he post bail.
On Jan. 6, two days after the Joliet Diocese placed Flores on leave from a Shorewood church when the abuse allegations surfaced, Flores fell 20 feet to the floor at St. Mary’s Carmelite Church in Joliet.
He was found unconscious between a row of pews. He was taken to a hospital in critical condition. Both police and church officials characterized it as a suicide attempt.
Flores was ordained in June. The abuse allegations stemmed from Flores’ time as a seminarian at St. Mary Catholic Church in West Chicago, authorities said.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. John Balluff, addressed the issue in the parish’s weekly bulletin, urging any parishioner with additional abuse allegations to immediately contact law enforcement.
“We will always be committed to doing everything possible to protect children, to help this child and his family and to help bring about healing for our families and the people of the diocese,” Balluff wrote.
Balluff did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday.
At a news conference earlier this month, Joliet Bishop J. Peter Sartain apologized to the boy and his family. There were no previous abuse allegations against Flores, the bishop said.
Barsanti said his office became aware of the allegations against Flores through the West Chicago police, who had received information from the church. Under state law, clergy are mandated reporters, meaning they must forward any allegations of sexual abuse. Police turned their investigation over to the Kane County Child Advocacy Center.
Ex-DuPage priest faces trial over release from custody
Parolee served time for sexually abusing 3 boys at Hinsdale church
Rev. Fred Lenczycki, 62, is the first member of the clergy in the state to face incarceration under the Illinois Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act. The law, which took effect in 1998, allows prosecutors to seek continued civil commitment of sex offenders they believe will re-offend because of a mental disorder.
However, a high legal bar is set for prosecutors to meet, and relatively few sexual offenders have been fully committed under the act.
Lenczycki, a priest in the Joliet diocese, was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to 5 years after pleading guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse of three boys. In April 2006, a month before Lenczycki was to be released on good behavior, Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan and DuPage County State’s Atty. Joseph Birkett invoked the commitment act.
Since then, the priest, who was paroled after serving about 2 1/2 years in Dixon, has been housed in a joint Department of Corrections and Department of Human Services facility there.
On Monday, Judge Bonnie Wheaton will preside over the start of the selection of 12 jurors who will hear evidence and decide if Lenczycki should remain incarcerated. The main evidence and testimony in the trial, expected to last a week, will come from health experts who have interviewed Lenczycki and studied his mental state.
The state’s witnesses, when questioned by assistant attorneys general, are expected to say he remains a danger and threat to society, and that there is a substantial likelihood he will engage in future improper sexual acts. The burden of proof is with the state.
Lenczycki’s defense, led by James D. Montgomery, former Chicago corporate counsel under then-Mayor Harold Washington, is expected to argue that with regular counseling and continued treatment, he is not a threat to anyone. Opponents of the state law argue that the act is a form of double jeopardy, that the defendant has served the prison sentence and that the criminal judge who presided over the case has already issued a just punishment.
If Lenczycki is confined to a state facility, Judge Wheaton would get periodic updates on his condition and could possibly review the incarceration decision in the future.
Lenczycki was assigned to nine parishes before being sent to prison. The specific charges on which he was convicted stem from his abuse of three students, ages 10 to 12, at St. Isaac Jogues Church in Hinsdale from 1982 to 1984. He would call the young boys to his office, make them wear a provocative costume and abuse them.
Lenczycki spent time in treatment in the 1980s and was then assigned to parishes in California and Missouri through the 1990s.
Court records indicate that prosecutors believe he may have abused many more children, including one who eventually entered the priesthood. He reported allegations of sexual abuse after the criminal charges against Lenczycki were made public.
Bishop Joseph Imesch, then-head of the Joliet diocese, was criticized for failing to safeguard children while protecting Lenczycki. Members of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests said they are considering holding public demonstrations at the DuPage Courthouse in Wheaton. The group plans to have observers at the hearings.
Douglas Delaney, a spokesman for Bishop J. Peter Sartain, current head of the Joliet diocese, said Friday that the diocese “is confident that Fred Lenczycki will receive a fair hearing, and the judicial result will be in the best interest of everyone.”
Questions surface in Joliet Diocese’s handling of priest now imprisoned for child abuse
Early warnings failed to halt man’s ordination
In an apparent attempt to take his life, Flores had plunged 20 feet from the choir loft, where investigators found an empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label scotch. They also discovered in his bedroom a suicide note he had written to one of the two brothers he was accused of molesting, according to police records.
“Dear son … Forgive me. I love you more than you know,” Flores wrote in Spanish to the older boy.
A few days earlier, the mother of the boys had called the Diocese of Joliet to complain about the newly ordained priest’s relationship with her younger son. The next morning, diocese officials promptly removed Flores from any contact with children and notified authorities, who later charged him with molesting the boy. Bishop J. Peter Sartain also publicly apologized to the child’s family.
Although it appears the diocese may have responded swiftly in early 2010, the handling of the matter continues to draw criticism. And the scrutiny has followed Sartain to Seattle, where he was installed last winter as archbishop. Critics argue warning signs were ignored or missed while Flores was a seminary student — a five-year period that mostly occurred under Sartain’s watch.
The case, investigators say, raises concerns about whether the diocese — which long faced allegations of covering up child sexual abuse by priests — withheld crucial information that should have been forwarded to police.
A Tribune examination found that at least three supervisors said they saw Flores alone with either one or both of the woman’s sons several times before his June 2009 ordination, including once while the younger boy changed clothes in Flores’ presence and was overheard calling him “Daddy,” according to police reports, court records and interviews. Parishioners say they complained and that Flores ignored warnings that such contact wasn’t appropriate.
The newspaper also learned Flores was sent for psychological evaluation and treatment at least twice, including three months before his ordination when he admitted viewing pornography on a parish computer, records show. Authorities said diocese officials later told them the images appeared to show young males engaged in sex acts.
Police said the diocese didn’t report the questionable images, and that the computer’s hard drive had disappeared when they sought it months later.
One priest who had supervised Flores was so frustrated that the seminarian was ordained despite repeated warnings that he wrote to Sartain asking why his complaints fell on deaf ears.
“Why have I not heard anything from you as my bishop?” the Rev. William Conway asked in the confidential letter obtained by the Tribune.
“Why was my input ignored…?” he wrote.
Flores, 38, is serving a four-year prison term for criminal sexual assault. He declined interview requests. Supporters say he maintains his innocence despite a guilty plea.
Flores was assigned to St. Mary Parish of West Chicago, where some parishioners said they are still outraged. One of them, Jennifer Wiesner, is a former St. Mary school board member.
“I’m disgusted to know that (church leaders) … knew Flores had an attraction for young boys, had a taste for them, and yet they irresponsibly still chose to knowingly put him at our school,” she said.
Early warning signs
The Joliet diocese recruited Flores for the seminary in 2004 when he was living in Bolivia, where he was raised in an orphanage. He later studied theology and did missionary work, according to his profile in a diocese magazine.
By 2005, when Flores was assigned to St. Mary, he met an impoverished single mother from Mexico and her two young sons, then about 8 and 12. The first documented warning sign occurred that year when the Rev. Burke Masters, then an associate pastor, saw Flores alone in a car with the younger child and warned the seminary student it was not appropriate, records indicate.
Flores’ contact with the boys grew so close during the next two years that several parishioners said they voiced their concerns to Conway, who was St. Mary’s pastor, as well as to Masters and Flores himself. Parishioners Eduardo Fuentes and his wife, Luzma, of West Chicago, said Flores had the boys call him “Papa” and gave the oldest one expensive electronics, clothes and even a bike.
“They were together everywhere, all the time, to the extent that people were openly talking about it,” Luzma Fuentes said.
In spring 2007, while she worked as a teacher’s aide at a West Chicago welcome center for immigrant students, Fuentes and other workers there said they found suspicious emails between Flores and the oldest boy on a computer. They said he was a high school freshman at the time and often visited the center.
Masters, now the diocese’s vocation director, and Conway, now pastor at a Downers Grove church, declined comment. But in a Sept. 14, 2010, letter to Sartain, Conway complained that his repeated concerns were ignored and that his opinion on Flores was never sought before the seminarian was ordained.
“During that time, there were different incidents that I brought to Fr. Masters’ attention about Alex and the concerns that I had,” Conway wrote. “I also recall telling Fr. Masters that I was worried that someday his trust in Alex might be betrayed.”
Prosecutors said Flores’ ordination was twice delayed, beginning in 2008 when he alleged he was abused years earlier in the Bolivian orphanage. It again was postponed in spring 2009 after the Rev. William Dewan, who supervised Flores during two internships at Holy Family Parish in Shorewood, said Flores admitted viewing pornography on a parish computer, according to a police report. Another psychological evaluation was ordered, a court record said.
Prosecutors said in a court document that Dewan also had seen Flores alone with the two brothers and that the younger child once changed his clothing in front of Flores.
“Father Dewan told the defendant that this was not appropriate behavior and he was not to be alone with minor children,” Debra Bree, a Kane County prosecutor, said during Flores’ plea hearing in September 2010. “He reported this information to Father Masters, who was in charge of seminary candidates including the defendant.”
It’s unclear whether Masters told Sartain of these concerns. Sartain allowed Flores’ ordination three months after the pornography evaluation was ordered. Prosecutors said their efforts to learn the evaluation results were blocked.
On Jan. 3, 2010, seven months after ordination, the mother of the two boys called Masters to report that her boyfriend said he saw Flores engage in suspicious activities with her younger son in a car and inside their St. Charles apartment after she allowed the priest to sleep there one night, according to court records.
Masters phoned Sartain the next morning. After speaking to Flores, Sartain transferred him to a diocese residence away from children and permanently removed him from his priestly duties. The diocese also alerted authorities.
The response differed from what happened during the tenure of Sartain’s predecessor, retired Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch, whose 27-year tenure was tarnished by a clergy sex abuse scandal.
Imesch faced accusations of failing to report repeated allegations of priest abuse to authorities. Critics accused him of transferring accused priests to new parishes after treatment and blocking police investigations.
Two days after the Flores allegations arose, and hours before he was to meet with Kane County investigators, diocese officials reported him missing to police. Soon afterward, authorities found Flores lying on the floor of St. Mary’s Carmelite Church.
During their investigation, police uncovered another warning sign they said the diocese missed.
A former seminary student said he had a sexual affair with Flores that began in July 2007 inside the Shorewood church rectory while Dewan was out of town, according to police reports. The alleged affair lasted through 2009. The youth was 18 when it began. Flores was 34.
The two met at St. Mary’s in West Chicago where the younger man was a parishioner. He told police Flores once gave him $3,000 as a gift, the report said.
Shorewood police Cmdr. Eric Allen said the younger man admitted deleting incriminating photos and stealing the camera’s memory card from Flores’ room to protect him while he was in the hospital recovering from the fall. Flores sustained critical head injuries but recovered.
Police said the young man “had direct knowledge of the charges against Flores and intentionally deleted photographs of Flores with young children laying together in bed,” records show.
Allen said he was able to recover the memory card after the student cooperated and led him to a bush in Joliet where he had tossed it several weeks earlier.
Also disturbing, Allen said, was the diocese’s handling of the spring 2009 pornography incident. Diocese officials never reported the questionable images despite concerns that minors were depicted because they said the website had a disclaimer saying only adults were featured, according to Allen. The images couldn’t be retrieved months later when Allen became involved, he said.
“They said at some point someone got ahold of the hard drive and it disappeared,” Allen said. “I told them, ‘You had an obligation to contact the Police Department, and we’ll make the determination if this is appropriate material or not.’ It was disappointing how they handled it.”
New flock, old issue
At his Sept. 8, 2010, guilty plea, Flores admitted abusing the youngest boy from 2005 to 2010, beginning when the child was 8, usually in his car or the family’s St. Charles apartment. He faces deportation to Bolivia upon his release.
Days after Flores’ plea, Sartain was named Seattle’s new archbishop. A handful of protesters gathered outside the cathedral at his Dec. 1 installation.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called for Pope Benedict XVI to revoke the appointment based on the Flores case. Though it’s not clear how much Sartain knew, critics argue it was enough not to ordain Flores.
Under the direction of Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, the current head of the Joliet Diocese, the diocese is negotiating with the family of the two boys to try to reach a settlement, according to the family’s attorney.
In hindsight, Flores shouldn’t have been ordained, Doug Delaney, a spokesman for the diocese, said shortly after the guilty plea.
In a recent statement to the Tribune, Sartain again apologized for the abuse.
“Once again, I express my deepest apologies to these young boys and their family for the suffering they are experiencing as a result of this abuse,” Sartain said. “Their trust has been broken, and this is a terrible tragedy for them and for the church.”
Tribune reporter Manya A. Brachear contributed.