By Zak Mucha

Tom Economus opens a file and digs out a business card that’s starting to yellow with age. “Sky Ranch for Boys,” it says in mimeograph blue. “Father Don Murray, founder-director.” On the back of the card is a picture of Father Murray and a teenager. The motto beneath them asserts, “A man never stands so straight as when he stoops to help a boy.”

The boy in the photo is Economus. “I used to wear this as a pin,” he says, “in my more militant days.”

Tom Economus grew up in Highland Park a devout Catholic who became an altar boy and from then on wanted to be a priest. In the early 70s, when he was a teenager, “my parents were separated, they were thinking about getting a divorce. I was skipping school and acting out in class. Nothing serious, nothing serial, but it was minor things, and they just thought it was in my best interest to send me to this particular school.”

So Tom and his younger brother David were packed off to Father Don Murray’s home for boys in South Dakota. “It had been recommended by some family friends who were on the board of directors at Sky Ranch,” says Economus. “The priest, Don Murray, was a very good friend of the family. Everybody knew him and he was very popular.” Murray and Sky Ranch had a reputation for succeeding with kids in trouble.

Sitting 120 miles northwest of Rapid City, Sky Ranch was “like its own town,” Economus says. Forty-eight miles of gravel road separated the nearest highway from the school’s 3,000 acres. There was nothing along the way but a couple of ranches and a missile site.

A Catholic Digest profile of Father Don Murray in 1975 described him as “the happy foster father of 800 sons…boys who have been sent to him from courts or broken families.” Murray’s methods were “based on a balance of love and discipline,” said the magazine, and succeeded with four boys out of five. Each year about 50 boys lived at Sky Ranch; they ranged in age from 11 to 18.

Father Murray was a pilot. According to Catholic Digest, his single-engine Cessna was “an enormous help in reaching the hard-core boys: the ones who defy teachers, law officers, judges, and parents.” Murray would take the plane up to 7,000 feet and tell the boy with him to take the controls. “The boy is amazed. Never has he been entrusted with anything of this magnitude. Inside he may be scared and reluctant….Unbelievingly, the boy obeys.” Once the tough kid is taking instructions, Murray orders him to pull the stick back: “Away back, to your guts! Now, kick the right rudder–hard.”

The plane goes into a spin. “The tough unbending kid needs help, and realizes it. The emotion he is feeling is one he has not experienced before. Then come the words Father Murray is waiting to hear: ‘Help me, Father.'” That’s when Murray takes over and pulls the plane out of its spin. “The boy has discovered that he is not the tough guy he thought he was, and the breakthrough Father Murray sought has come.”

Murray was on the road a lot, lecturing and raising money. A model student, Tom Economus often came along. “He would parade me around in front of these people,” Economus says, “put me up on the stage by myself in front of anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand people. And he would say, ‘Now look at this. This is a bad boy. He came from a broken home, he was a drug addict, he was running the streets. This is a kid that’s been involved in burglaries, theft. But with your help we can turn his life around.'” None of that was true. “I was the poster boy for these fund-raising tours,” Economus says.

The truth was something Economus had to keep to himself. Father Murray was an alcoholic who sexually abused him. “After whatever number Scotch he had, the abuse would take place when we were in these isolated areas.” One night ended up on the record when a lawsuit was filed years later. “It was at a fund-raising event on Mackinaw Island, where at that time he was very drunk, and that was where he raped me. I finally had to wait for him to pass out to get out from underneath him, and I spent the rest of the night huddled under this secretary’s desk. In the morning he looked at me and said, ‘Take a shower, we have to have Mass.’ And so I took a shower, and he acted as if nothing had happened. By that point I had learned how to just act like nothing was going on.”

Tom Economus assumed he was not the only one, but he didn’t know. It wasn’t something he talked about, not even with David–though Murray had once asked him if the two boys slept in the same bed. “There were always little questions he would ask me in regard to my brother like that, but I never put two and two together.”

Tom Economus graduated from Sky Ranch in 1974. The next year David Economus’s senior term was cut short when Don Murray’s plane, with David and two other students also onboard, crashed during takeoff. David was the only survivor. “At the time we were all told the man had a heart attack on takeoff,” Tom Economus recalls. “We believed it.”

Tom Economus says he can’t count the number of times he’s been told he’s going to hell for the demands he makes of the Roman Catholic Church. I’ll be in good company, he likes to reply–plenty of bishops and monsignors are already burning there.

He’s made it his life’s work to rid the church of the sort of abuse he encountered growing up. “The connection that they really don’t get is that it’s not just physical abuse, it’s the spiritual abuse,” he says. “This man of God has manipulated children, and that’s really at the heart of this issue. It’s not like they run out, abuse a kid, and that’s it. There’s a relationship with the kid, there’s a relationship with the family, there’s a whole mental manipulation here that goes on that is totally devastating.

“If you’re raised Catholic, you’re taught to put these priests on a pedestal. You believe they’re next to God. You believe everything they say, and here they are molesting you and saying ‘This is our secret’ or ‘God wants it this way.’ Or if the priest is challenged [by the victim going public], it’s ‘I’ll get in trouble and you’ll get in trouble’ or ‘Everyone will find out you’re really homosexual’ or ‘Your parents will get excommunicated.’

“I come from an Italian and Greek family,” he continues. “I got Catholics all over the place….It’s still very difficult for them to say, ‘This church I believed in for 50 years, this man that gives me communion, that presents the body and blood of Christ–could they actually be doing this?’

“There are actually people who think that we should just forgive and forget and pray,” Economus says. “They’ll say, ‘We understand. But if you’re a good Catholic, a good Christian, you need to let it go.’ You would think we’d get the majority of our support from the people in the pews. We don’t. We get a lot of sympathy from them. I get cards all the time from people saying ‘We’re praying for you.’ But the fact is this goes way beyond praying. This is about accountability.”

There is nothing much Tom Economus wants to say about the life he led from the mid-70s to the late 80s. He drank and did drugs and was arrested once for possession of cocaine. The charge was dropped. “I was living all over the place,” he says. “I lived in Chicago, I lived in Washington, D.C., California.” Each time he’d find a little place and a meaningless job. “Either I’d get fired or something would come up and I couldn’t deal with it. I’d leave and float on. I usually had a two- or three-year span at any given place and something in my mind would go ‘This is too comfortable. Time to get up and move.'”

Though his life “stalled,” as he puts it, his desire to join the priesthood never vanished. He finally shook drugs and alcohol, and in 1989 he entered Washington Theological Union. He intended to become a Carmelite priest. But after two years he decided he could neither follow Roman Catholic doctrines on women’s rights, marriage in the priesthood, and divorce nor accept the way the church shut its eyes to sexual abuse by its clergy.

Today Economus serves Mass at Grace Place in Printers Row for the Church of the Holy Family, which belongs to the tiny Independent Holy Catholic Church. After graduating from Washington Theological he was ordained by the IHCC, which was founded in 1980 by Episcopal and Roman Catholic priests who wanted to set up a ministry for AIDS patients and found their church leaders unsupportive. The church ordains men and women, single or married, and performs marriage ceremonies for gays and lesbians. Otherwise its doctrines and rituals vary little from the Roman Catholic. It has only some 500 members nationwide.

During the summer of 1990, Economus was offered a part-time job at Sky Ranch as a fund-raiser and counselor. “The board of directors from Sky Ranch were really convincing me that I should do this–it would be a good thing for Sky Ranch and a good thing for myself. And at the same time Sky Ranch was looking for good PR–a former Sky Ranch boy, a graduate who’s going to be a priest, coming back to work with these kids. There were a lot of factors in there, but most of it was that I felt a sense of vocation. I’m going into the priesthood and this is in front of me. Maybe this is what I need to do.” He decided to put the past behind him.

Economus took the job. But it didn’t heal the wounds of the past. Though he was clean, sober, and in therapy, he still felt a hole inside him.

Tom says he and his brother had never talked about their past at Sky Ranch. During the 1991 Christmas break, David broke the silence. “He actually approached me and said, ‘This happened to me, and I know it happened to you.'”

When Economus returned to Sky Ranch he told his spiritual adviser how he’d suffered at Murray’s hands. The response shocked him: “It’s a horrible thing, just bring it to prayer and let it go.” Economus says, “Every time I would push to talk about it–because I needed to–he would just say, ‘You need to pray about it.’ Praying doesn’t do it. When the Vatican needs money do they sit around and pray? No, they go and do something about it.”

Economus’s adviser told him not to repeat the story. Ignoring the advice, he and David told their mother, who was mortified. “It was interesting,” Tom remembers. “She said, ‘Now a lot of things make sense to me.’ And what she meant was our behavior patterns. Both my brother and I had problems with alcohol, going to drugs, and bouncing back and forth.”

As others heard the story they “divided down the middle,” Economus says. “Half believed us. The other half said, ‘Oh that couldn’t possibly happen. These are just screwed-up kids to begin with.'” Some people Economus considered family called them liars.

Tom Economus took his allegations to the Sky Ranch board of directors. He says he was told to keep quiet and the school would handle the problem. But the only past the school scrutinized was his.

In the early 90s Economus read a Sun-Times article about victims of clergy sexual abuse who were forming a support group. A phone number ran with the article and Economus called it.

In 1993 he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show with other members of this new group, then called Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup. “The night before the show, we were getting interviewed in a hotel room on Michigan Avenue and this big cowboy comes in the room. A big cowboy hat, big old buckle, and cowboy boots. We all kind of looked at him. Everybody introduces themselves and all of a sudden he leans forward, falls on the bed, and starts crying. My first instinct was to go over and be pastoral. I said, ‘Are you all right?’ He says, ‘I just received word from my attorney that the bishop issued a letter saying the abuse I alleged was actually truthful.'”

The cowboy was also appearing on Oprah. “Where was the abuse?” Economus asked him.

“Rapid City, South Dakota.”

Economus and the cowboy realized they both were confronting the same diocese and bishop. “I just met with this guy a week ago,” Economus told the cowboy. “And he told me I was the very first person to ever allege abuse in his diocese.”

“He’s full of crap,” the cowboy said. “I’ve been suing him for four years.”

Back in the cowboy’s hotel room, Economus watched a four-part report on clergy sexual abuse that had been produced by a TV station in South Dakota. According to this report, the cowboy had been tied, handcuffed, beaten, and sexually abused.

“So I made this connection with this guy,” Economus says. “Six months later he calls me and says, ‘Tom, some guy might be calling you. Last night in our AA meeting he said he’s been sexually abused.” The man had said where, Sky Ranch for Boys; and when, the late 50s; and who, Father Don Murray.

In 1993 Tom and David Economus sued Sky Ranch for Boys and the Sky Ranch Foundation on grounds of sexual and physical abuse. The school countersued. “The basis for their suit was that I had defrauded them,” says Tom. He explains that Sky Ranch had dug up his narcotics arrest and was now citing it, as well as his new affiliation with the Independent Catholic Church, as evidence that he’d deceived the ranch. “That fueled the flames by pissing me off more than anything.”

David Economus had always believed Murray wasn’t fit to fly the day he died. The brothers asked the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board for their reports on the plane crash. “The NTSB faxed me this file, just two pages,” says Tom. “Right there it said ‘probable cause of death.'” Murray’s blood had been 0.284 percent alcohol–more than three times the intoxication level as defined today for motorists in Illinois.

“They had covered that up since 1975. The board of directors knew it and the bishops knew it. But they had to safeguard his legacy and the reputation of the school. That was what we built our case on because we were outside the statute of limitations. But we argued in court that if the church would cover this up it was only natural that they would cover up the sex abuse.”

The legal battle stretched over five years and was settled out of court on August 25, 1997. “We exhausted everything we could do legally,” says Tom Economus. “We were at the point where the case would either go to trial or be thrown out.” If it were dismissed or lost, the brothers would have nothing to show for their troubles but several thousands of dollars of debt. “We talked in detail with the attorneys and they said we’d been lucky to even get to that point.” The school made an offer and the brothers refused it, but the second offer was embellished with a letter of apology. “It wasn’t about money,” Economus says. The money would barely cover their legal costs. “It was a moral victory. And I was tired after five and a half years.”

The suit settled, David Economus dropped out of the fight. Tom is still waging it. David supports his brother, but he says, “That’s his calling, not mine.”

In 1983 the Reverend Robert Mayer was removed from Saint Edna parish in Arlington Heights after it was alleged that he’d exposed himself and attempted to undress several altar boys. Jeanne Miller, the mother of one of the boys, filed suit against Mayer and the Chicago archdiocese. The case was settled out of court, and Mayer was assigned to three other parishes before being named pastor of Saint Odilo in Berwyn in 1990. A year later Mayer was accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl in the parish. He resigned from the priesthood in 1993.

Jeanne Miller decided to go to war against the Catholic Church’s usual response to clergy sexual abuse–which was to pass repeat offenders from parish to parish. In 1991 she founded Linkup. Today Linkup has 7,500 members, a mailing list that exceeds 15,000, and a database with the names of 3,200 clergy who have been accused of abuse. Tom Economus is its president and national director.

In October of 1991, Cardinal Bernardin appointed a three-person commission to investigate allegations of clergy abuse and recommend guidelines to the diocese. The following June the commission recommended “that any priest who engages in sexual misconduct with a minor not be returned to parish ministry or any kind of ministry which would give him access to minors.” Any exceptions would “have to weigh against the rationale for our recommendation.” The commission called for a telephone hot line, a professional case manager to investigate allegations, a review board, and expanded outreach to victims, their families, and their parishes.

Hailed as a “landmark document” by Cardinal Bernardin, the 93-page report was implemented by the autumn of 1992. Ralph Bonnacorsi, an education consultant and mediator with the archdiocese’s Office of Conciliation, was named “victim assistance minister.” Today Bonnacorsi explains that he’s responsible for providing “a contact point and also an outreach effort to survivors and victims of sexual abuse. What we do most is listen empathically and answer questions.” He estimates that 10 to 15 people a year contact his office, some with allegations of abuse, some just to ask questions, others to make inquiries for friends. Bonnacorsi says about five a year will remain in contact with the office for an extended period. “More and more in the past couple years,” he says, “they’re past the incident of sexual abuse and want to reconnect with the church.”

When a priest is accused, he’s placed on leave while the nine-member review board, which is dominated by laity, investigates. The board advises the cardinal on the credibility of the allegations and on whether the priest should be allowed to return to the ministry. The final decision belongs to the cardinal.

Before the archdiocese adopted the guidelines, Linkup used to protest in Lincoln Park across from the cardinal’s mansion. Tom Economus says the members were desperate. “The first time I met with Cardinal Bernardin it was not a real pleasant conversation,” he remembers, “because I had been very critical of him and the diocese and the lack, at that time, of policy and procedure. He wasn’t happy about some of the things I said about him and I certainly wasn’t happy with the way he was handling the issue.”

Their occasional private meetings eventually became amicable, and Economus now says that Bernardin was much more willing to hear him out than other church leaders. “I think some of these bishops that I’ve met really don’t get it because they’re so far removed from the population,” he says. “They live in these ivory towers. Like here, the cardinal lives in a 26-room mansion. They’ve got all this power and money to do what they want and they’re very disconnected from the general population.”

In 1993 the archdioceses of Chicago and Santa Fe announced that they were in danger of bankruptcy. Each of their crises was partly due to settlements with victims of clergy abuse. In late 1993 Bernardin was personally plunged into the controversy. He was named in a lawsuit filed by 34-year-old Steven Cook in Cincinnati. Cook, who was asking for $10 million, alleged that Bernardin and another priest had sexually abused him in the mid-70s, while he was a preseminary student and Bernardin was archbishop of Cincinnati. He claimed that he’d recalled this abuse under hypnosis. Bernardin flatly denied the allegation. “I’m 65 years old and I can tell you that all my life I have lived a chaste and celibate life,” he said at a press conference.

Bernardin’s case was separated from the priest’s and neither made it to court. Cook’s suit against the cardinal collapsed when it was learned that Cook’s last therapist was unlicensed, had not made notes either before, during, or after the session in which Cook was hypnotized, and had not taped any of their sessions together.

But the Cincinnati archdiocese settled the other case out of court. More alleged victims had come forward to accuse the priest, and in June 1994 he was placed on administrative leave. He soon resigned from the priesthood.

Economus says he and Bernardin never discussed the suit. “We had finally gotten to the point after three or four years,” he says, “where we respected each other and respected the work we were doing. I think if he had a couple more years, we might have been able to really do something positive nationally about this issue.”

People who have known both Jeanne Miller and Tom Economus describe him as hot-tempered and mercurial and Linkup as a harder organization to work with than when she ran it. “Tom readily says, ‘I sometimes become very vocal,’ and I understand that about him,” says Ralph Bonnacorsi. “We’ve tried not to let our differing styles get in the way of working on the deeper issue of healing and justice and, if you will, forgiveness.” Economus was Miller’s hand-picked successor when she decided to leave Linkup and enter law school. “I thought he had a lot of energy and he certainly had the commitment,” she says today. But the transition estranged them so completely that Miller broke off contact with the organization she created and she hasn’t been in touch in years. “I don’t want to drag out any of the old issues,” Miller says. “He and I had some things to deal with and we dealt with them.” And Economus says, “Yeah, there was a falling out. It’s in the past.”

The Linkup national headquarters now occupies the sun porch of Economus’s Andersonville apartment. Files spill out across the dining table. “This is OK for right now,” he says with a sheepish grin. “We’re trying to work on more funding and hopefully, eventually, we’ll be able to move into a regular office.” Linkup is funded by donations, some coming from an annual pledge drive and others from foundations. “I’m a working president,” he says. “It’s not a title.” He’s the only person on the payroll.

His days find him working with victims, the media, attorneys, consultants, detectives, judges, the juvenile justice system, prosecutors, and politicians. About 25 volunteers in Chicago help with mailings and the bimonthly newsletter, organize and update the databases, and even run support groups for victims. And at age seven, Linkup now has a representative, a point person, in each of the country’s 188 dioceses.

“A lot of times, if a story breaks in a local area the media will call and run our phone number,” Economus says. Linkup’s number can be found at rape crisis centers and with the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Abuse, hot lines in every state, the national directory for child abuse, and the American Psychological Association.

Linkup’s main mission is to connect victims, who probably have held their separate silences for years. Often Tom Economus is first to hear a victim’s story. “What usually happens,” he says, “if it’s the first time someone calls it is either a very short conversation or it’s a two-and-a-half-hour conversation. A lot of times I say ‘Hi, this is Tom’ and I say nothing else for two hours.”

With the permission of the caller, the name of the accused perpetrator is run through the Linkup database. If there’s a match, Economus says, “we call the people that originally gave us the information, and then call the current people, and with permission we exchange their phone numbers and link them up with one another. That becomes their support network.”

Men in their late 20 and early 30s account for a majority of the calls to Linkup. Usually they’re speaking of their abuse for the first time. “What goes on in a male victim’s mind, which usually goes on for a lifetime if they’re not in therapy, is, ‘Am I heterosexual or homosexual? Will I become a pedophile?’ Those are real specific questions that constantly repeat themselves in someone’s mind. So because of that, and because of the stigma that men just don’t get molested and men are supposed to be stronger, men have a very difficult time coming forward. It’s very hard to sit and talk about this stuff. Usually, when they do come forward,” Economus says, “it’s a result of them hitting rock bottom with alcohol or gambling addictions, or their wife is threatening to leave, or they’re about to have children, or their children are having problems.” They’ve reached a point where the abuse cannot be ignored.

Economus has found that when abuse takes place the victim’s support system usually is missing or damaged and the perpetrator knows it. “The victims come from broken families, some kind of dysfunction, alcoholism–and these priests zero in on that,” he says. “The kid is very susceptible to begin with and the parents or the family system is in chaos….It’s absolutely predatory.”

Linkup also exists “to expose the perpetrator, to make sure no other child is being abused by him, and to make the church accountable,” Economus says. When victims of abuse bring the issue to the church, its response is often a request for silence, he says. “So now they’ve got not only the abuse, but the anger and the outrage. That’s when we get them. Again, that has to do with the fact that we all waited until our 20s, 30s, and 40s to come forward to talk about it.”

Linkup maintains a referral list of therapists and attorneys. One attorney is Joseph Klest, who has handled over 60 civil cases involving child sexual abuse. Only if the alleged abuser might still be prosecuted would Linkup report an accusation against him to the police, and Klest says that more often than not the statute of limitations has expired by the time the victim is ready to come forward. But in August, Illinois law was liberalized, and now a prosecution can begin “within 10 years of the victim attaining the age of 18 years, if the victim reported the offense to law enforcement authorities before he or she attained the age of 21 years.” Economus says few abuse allegations have made it to either criminal or civil trial, and it’s not uncommon for diocesan lawyers to write gag orders into their settlements. “The church can’t afford to let all that information out to the public.”

In California, where Economus has been working with the Legislative Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse, the legislature has passed laws obliging the clergy and other professionals who work with children to report workplace child abuse, extending the statute of limitations for criminal and civil actions, and applying these new limits to negligent third parties–such as a diocese that doesn’t respond to allegations against its clergy. The maximum sentence for child molestation has been increased from 8 to 16 years. “We’re hoping the other 49 states will follow,” Economus says, “but it’s very difficult.”

Two years ago, Linkup held its fifth National Healing Conference in Washington, D.C., at the same time the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was meeting there. This was not a coincidence. While the NCCB has issued lengthy pastoral letters on nuclear weapons and the American economy, it has never declared a common policy on clergy sexual abuse.

Economus says Cardinal Francis George has yet to meet with Linkup. At least not formally. As the cardinals lunched in a Washington hotel, “we had a protest outside, and afterwards a group of us went into the hotel,” Economus says. “I turned around and several of the victims from Chicago had surrounded the cardinal.” One asked, “What are you going to do with these pedophile priests?”

Economus says George replied, “We don’t have pedophiles. We have ephebophiles.”

The term “ephebophilia”–from the Greek-derived “ephebe,” for young man–cannot be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychoanalysis. To Economus, “ephebophilia” is a creation of the church intended to lower the reported numbers of pedophile clergy. Faced with an already dwindling ministry, the church labels some child abusers “ephebophiles,” declares their condition easier to deal with, and sends them back to parishes. “These are sex offenders no matter how they are categorized.”

Two psychiatric facilities, Saint Luke Institute in Maryland and Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, specialize in the treatment of clergy. Father Stephen Rossetti, chief operating officer of Saint Luke, claimed in his 1996 book A Tragic Grace that “only” 20 percent of the child sex offenders at his institute are pedophiles. “The majority of perpetrators are involved with postpubescent children,” he wrote. “All things being equal, they are more amenable to treatment.”

Tom Economus considers Rossetti’s book “church propaganda.” He wants treatment centers favored by the church to release their data. “If this is what they have come up with, great,” says Economus. “Then they should share their findings with the world. Send the results to Harvard Medical Center. They won’t. They say they can’t share the results when I asked them because they’re ‘confidential.'”

Rossetti attributed the “sometimes inadequate response to child sexual abuse” to a culture clash: “However, unlike the fast-paced American culture, the Catholic Church is slow. It charts a cautious, determined course.” But this caution should not be mistaken for a reluctance to act, Rossetti maintained. Bishops are doing what they can behind closed doors. “The church is discreet to the point of appearing secretive. The Catholic Church culture makes every effort to maintain confidentiality, especially with sensitive information. Potential scandals are kept from public view.”

Ralph Bonnacorsi doesn’t make distinctions among victims based on their ages. “Criminal acts have been perpetrated. Whether the victim is 6 or 16, it’s still abuse.” And he denies that the church has adopted the idea that ephebophilia represents a separate and lesser order of child abuse. “There’s some disagreement on that. There’s no monolithic understanding or belief or position.” But does the cardinal hold the idea? he was asked, after a request to speak with Cardinal George had been diverted to him. “I don’t know. He’s not said that in my presence,” Bonnacorsi replied.

Rossetti wrote that child molesters should be “subjected to the criminal justice system,” but he managed to sympathize with a priest who molested more than a hundred children. “The media used words like ‘monster’ to describe priest-child molester James Porter. One expected him to appear as a voracious, menacing figure who would strike terror in people’s hearts. What appeared on television was a weak, frightened, confused, and ineffectual man.” And Rossetti commented, “There are many other heinous crimes which do not engender the same response. There are no similar movements afoot to identify and restrict serial killers, drug dealers, child-beaters, cop-killers, and psychopaths. Child sex molesters are singled out for particular loathing and punishment which is now being institutionalized by state governments. Truly, they have become leprous societal outcasts.”

Baltimore psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest who has spent 25 years researching celibacy and sexual abuse among priests, estimates that 3,000 of the nation’s 53,000 Catholic priests have committed sexual misconduct with children.

“Most of the victims–and this is 90 percent of the calls we get here at Linkup–have to do with Roman Catholic priests,” Economus says. “The other 10 percent have to do with other religious denominations.” Where other denominations are concerned, 90 percent of the alleged victims of sexual abuse are adults, Economus goes on. But when Roman Catholic clergy are accused, 90 percent of the victims are boys.

Why? “Celibacy,” says Economus. “What I mean by that is, first of all you have a celibate structure–you’re not supposed to have sex.

“Celibacy is supposed to be a gift. You’re giving that part of yourself over to God, so it gives you room to pastor other people and it’s an issue you don’t have to deal with. Many of these men that are now in their 50s and 60s went through the minor seminary program. Which means they were prepubescent little boys who were told, ‘The only two women you are supposed to love are your mother and the Blessed Virgin and don’t you dare have an erection because it’s bad.’ If you’re taught from the age of nine or ten all the way up until you’re ordained at 28, what kind of twisted, dysfunctional thinking are you going to have?”

Sipe argued in his 1995 book Sex, Priests, and Power that this dysfunction is the church’s most threatening crisis in centuries. “When one begins to grasp the implications of priest sexual abuse–that it is a symptom of a failed system of power and inadequate sexual doctrine–one can understand the confusion and fright of church leaders. The very structure of their system is disintegrating. The more they analyze the symptoms, the more clearly the diseased function and structure of the system become apparent.” Sipe concluded, “It is clear that the institutional church fosters a preadolescent stage of psychosexual development.”

Celibacy was imposed on Roman Catholic clergy in the 12th century, and for reasons other than spiritual. “The preservation of church property favored those who had no spouses or heirs,” Sipe wrote. Economus expands on the point. “The bastard children were inheriting all the church property along with the regular children. So the church incorporated this celibacy thing in order to hang on to their power base and also to hang on to their property. And then it was a hundred years later they developed it into this theology of being Christlike.”

Economus says former patients at the Saint Luke Institute have told him they were encouraged there to take part in so-called dignity masses that are held for gay and lesbian Catholics outside the church’s formal auspices. “Part of the so-called rehab,” he says sarcastically, “is to integrate themselves so they can deal with their sexual identity. The Catholic Church said you cannot have these separate homosexual masses in the church, and yet they’re actually sending these men to go preach at them.” It’s not only a “total contradiction of their own theology,” he says, but a lumping of child abuse with homosexuality. He says one priest who was angered that dignity masses and gay support groups had become part of his “treatment” told him, “I don’t think I’m a gay man. I just think I’m sick.”

“A pedophile is a pedophile–one who molests children,” Economus says. “Some molest little boys, some little girls, some both. It has nothing to do with one’s orientation, even though some are trying to make it out as so.” He thinks the church has worked out a “politically correct” way of closing its eyes to reality. “A homosexual in the church is morally wrong for them, in their teaching. A pedophile is sick, criminal activity.” But an “ephebophile” is safely in the middle. “There’s no law against it, and it’s kind of immoral, but it’s not way over here, yet,” he says, motioning far to one side. “The church has found this comfort zone.”

When Father John Calicott of Holy Angels Church on the south side was reinstated in 1995, it seemed to Economus that the archdiocese had thrown its new guidelines out the window. After three years of removing priests guilty of sexual misconduct from their parish ministries, Bernardin made an exception for Calicott–who’d admitted to having “sexual contact” with two 15-year-old boys while an assistant pastor in 1976. The victims had gone to the archdiocese in 1994, an investigation had been conducted, Calicott had admitted guilt, and the review board had recommended administrative leave. At the age of 48, Calicott entered Saint Luke Institute.

When he came out, he was the first priest in the archdiocese to be reinstated since Bernardin’s guidelines took effect.

Linkup arrived at the predominantly black south-side parish without invitation. “We wanted to let them know that this man had admitted abusing these kids,” says Economus, “and we also wanted to put faces on the abuse….And actually we were pretty shocked. This group was not supportive of us. They were very angry that we would come into their church–their territory–and protest.” The parishioners were polite but they told the Linkup delegation this was none of their business. “People said, ‘You just don’t understand.’ And I asked the guy, ‘What do you mean? I don’t understand because I’m white?’ And he said yeah. I was offended. I work with victims all the time. Abuse is abuse, no matter what color or heritage. People came around to understand what we were trying to do, but they said, ‘We’ll take care of it.'”

This was a first. “Usually when we talk to parishes they’re just outraged that the bishops would put a known pedophile into their parish.”

A week after that confrontation, Linkup stood in the park across the street from Cardinal Bernardin’s mansion and demanded to know why another child molester had been returned to the ministry. “I had met with Bernardin a couple days before [Calicott’s return] and he mentioned nothing,” Economus says.

Bernardin announced publicly that Calicott was not a pedophile. A statement from the archdiocese released the day of Calicott’s return said that there’d been no other allegations against the priest, two psychological assessments recommended his return, he would continue in psychiatric treatment, and the parishioners favored reinstatement. The statement said: “In deciding to reinstate Father Calicott, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin noted that he was making an exception to his previously-stated position on return to parish ministry in cases involving sexual misconduct with minors, but decided to do so based on the specific circumstances of Father Calicott’s case.”

“If I felt there was a real risk to children, I would not have done this,” said Bernardin. “We have imposed very strict conditions that reduce the risk almost to the point where it doesn’t exist.” Calicott would be supervised by a “responsible adult” whenever he was with children.

“I am not ashamed to say I made a mistake,” the Tribune quoted Calicott as saying. “I am not afraid to say I need forgiveness.”

Two years later, the pastor of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Church in Winnetka asked his congregation whether a priest with a history of child sexual abuse should be allowed to move into the rectory. The pastor, Thomas Ventura, had known the priest since their seminary days together.

Ventura proposed that Father Thomas Swade live and help out at the parish while working in a downtown church office. He would not be allowed contact with children. In 1992 Swade had been accused of sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old boy he’d met through Link Unlimited, an organization he’d helped create to raise tuition for inner-city children. The alleged misconduct had occurred 11 years earlier.

When the charge was made, the archdiocese placed Swade on leave and Link Unlimited sent out more than a thousand letters alerting its past students. Five more came forward to accuse Swade. Denying only one of the six sets of charges, the priest volunteered to undergo therapy, and in the autumn of 1996 he was cleared by the review board to return to the ministry.

As with Father Calicott, it was time for the parish to speak.

“Every priest with allegations against them has the right,” says Ralph Bonnacorsi, “after a period of time, after going through all the protocols, to request a return to ministry. The agreement was that the pastor would go to his parishioners to see if they felt they could be comfortable.”

After Swade presented himself to the parish council and the school board, Father Ventura spoke to the whole parish. “The process was a credible one, an honest one,” says Bonnacorsi. “There was a forthright effort to hear what people were saying. And frankly, what I remember, the smaller bodies, the representative bodies, were not unanimous votes. Overwhelmingly, they felt the pastor should go further “with the dialogue process.”

A group of concerned parents had asked Economus to come out to the church. His description of the process he witnessed is not so sanguine. “This big old guy from the Link Unlimited program said, ‘You got to remember, this was a poor black kid that came from a broken family and he had a problem with sex and Father was just trying to help him.’ I almost fell out of my chair,” says Economus, and he adds that it wasn’t the only excuse he heard. “‘And, you know, father was teaching him yoga so he could have control over his erection.’ ‘He only took a shower with the boy.'”

Ultimately, says Bonnacorsi, it was up to Father Ventura. “The pastor decided, given what he heard [from parishioners], it would not be advisable.”

“They tried to reinstate a new pedophile,” says Economus. “And the parish rejected him.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.