In the climate of today’s Catholic church, hell hath no fury like a family accusing a priest of sexually abusing their child. Usually the fury is expressed through civil litigation, and the cases can be exceedingly bitter, pitting Catholics against the institution of their faith. Since 1985, more than 200 American priests and brothers have been reported for molesting minors, in most cases boys–an average of one case every ten days. The financial toll has been steep. Nationwide, scores of personal injury suits have been brought, with more than $300 million paid to victims by dioceses and their insurers.
Few such cases go to trial. Attorneys for church and children alike usually negotiate out-of-court settlements: as families seek to shield the child from public exposure, so the church seeks to prevent media coverage of a trial.
Last December 7, however, after nearly four days of deliberation, a jury in a small town near Saint Paul, Minnesota, awarded $3.55 million to a young man who as a minor was molested for eight years by one Father Thomas Adamson. Testimony revealed that over a 23-year period, church officials in the dioceses of Winona and Minneapolis-Saint Paul knew of Adamson’s sexual proclivities yet continued to assign him to parish work, transferring him from one place to another as trouble arose. Plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Anderson had previously settled eight cases involving other victims of the priest. Of the record award (which was lowered on appeal; now the plaintiffs are appealing the lowering of the award), $2.7 million was in punitive damages against the dioceses for what the jury agreed was “willful indifference or deliberate lack of concern.”
Since July of 1989, a civil case against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the Archdiocese of Chicago has slowly been making its way through Cook County Circuit Court. In case number 89 L 10141, before Judge Jerome Lerner, a family alleges that their son was beaten and sexually molested by their pastor, in concert with the principal of the parish school, a former nun.
Call them the Does–John, Jane, and their son Richard: that is how they are identified in the legal papers. But in contrast to the Minnesota case, there has been no admission of guilt by the alleged offenders. Church attorneys have mounted a brass-knuckles defense.
At the heart of this conflict lies the haunting story of a seven-year-old boy and how his parents, the church, and the legal system responded to the shocking charges he forced them to confront. You might say that nothing in the parents’ lives prepared them for the pain this incident has brought them; then again, everything the Catholic faith taught the Does, every lesson in morality, shaped them for a journey through darkness.
“It was a very simple life, and a good life that we had,” John Doe ruminates as we follow the Stevenson Expressway into the glinting afternoon sun. “South-side Irish in this city have always been a different breed: you took your identity from your neighborhood, parish, and school.”
Doe has buddies who stayed in the old neighborhood. But he wears a fine dark suit and his home in the suburbs is a world removed from the Chicago his forebears found three generations ago. He is an attorney, with a guarded quality to his speech. Reflections of youth come in measured cadences, as if to keep memories of the recent past at bay: “My mother and father grew up next door to each other. In the Depression, I’ve been told, when people didn’t know what they were gonna eat, neighbor would help neighbor with a slab of bacon, a piece of this, a piece of that. My mother took care of four older people in two next-door houses. Nobody got medals for it. That was the way people lived. I’m the first one in my family to finish high school. I bought my mother a house a few years ago, but she spends a good deal of time at our place.”
We pass the Santa Fe and Illinois Central junction, where passenger trains once funneled into the Loop. The red tower of a soap factory burnishes the blue sky. Then the car heads down Damen, past row upon row of brick bungalows. The darkened brick and medieval spires of churches emerge and recede in traffic, and John Doe grows more animated.
“See how close together the churches are? They had Ukrainians, Romanians, Latvians, Czechs,” he says, elongating vowels for ethnic emphasis–“all working together in the Stockyards. But they didn’t like each other so much, wouldn’t go to church with one another. They had their own priests who spoke their language, so they had their own churches–sometimes a block apart! I don’t know how they managed to raise the money. In one church you’ll find copper-colored cupolas, with bells inside half the size of this car. The Irish mostly moved to suburbs or better parts of the city, like Beverly. Bridgeport is one of the few places where they really stayed. These folks, the Slavs, Croatians, Czechs, stayed and invested their money.”
Was there a parish priest who most influenced him, a mentor he remembers best? “No,” Doe says. But the neighborhood taps his memory bank. “The guys who really ran things, the figures you looked up to, were the old monsignors. Just about every parish in the 1950s had the man who came out 30 years earlier when it was nothing but farmland and he built the church and built the school and was himself a cornerstone of the neighborhood.”
He relaxes now, warming to his subject. “People would say, That’s Father Green, he built Saint Rita’s. . . . There goes Monsignor Hishen, he built Saint Gall. They were powerful, dynamic men. A guy who built one of those parishes could have built a factory, could have practiced law or been a doctor. These guys had dough; they knew everybody, they were named in people’s wills. So the first thing [Cardinal] Cody did was break those old patriarchs. He pushed through a rule saying you couldn’t be a pastor if you were over 70. There were a lot of hale and hearty septuagenarians, and Cody made ’em retire. It was a power play, because the next thing he did was make every parish start sending money downtown [to the chancery], where before, each pastor had more control over his parish funds.
“By the time I was coming up, the older priests who were power brokers had seen the boom times, the Depression, the war, and now they had married that generation off. They didn’t have the teen club and basketball, all the things today in a suburban parish. Kids were expected to go to school, do well, keep your mouth shut, don’t make any waves. I went to Saint Rita’s. The school was a three-story building with 2,400 kids, about 60 kids per room. We were taught by nuns. There was no such thing as insubordination problems. There must have been eight priests in the rectory. The parish built its own high school with a big chapel and many of the priests would come over there to say Mass. In effect, you had two parishes. The neighborhood’s changing now. Latinos and blacks moving in, the Irish moving out. Recently an old woman was raped on the church doorstep before 7:30 Mass in the morning. That stuff was unheard of when I was a kid.”
The immigrant church of John Doe’s childhood is becoming an anachronism in other ways as well. Although the Catholic population has mushroomed to 52 million nationally, the church is severely short of priests. Since the mid-70s, an average of 1,300 priests have resigned yearly, mainly because of the celibacy requirement, while seminary enrollment has plunged more than 80 percent–from 48,000 in 1965 to less than 9,000 today. Few rectories have eight priests. At the present rate, by the year 2,000, about 15 percent of U.S. parishes will have no priests at all.
The Does are like countless progeny of the immigrant church now gone to suburbia. With a $25 million archdiocesan debt, Cardinal Bernardin has been closing churches in old city neighborhoods that cannot support rising parish costs. But demographic shifts alone do not explain the financial plight. Catholics of the postwar era have achieved unparalleled affluence; a third of the Fortune 500 CEOs are Catholic. Yet according to Father Andrew Greeley, lay financial giving has declined by 50 percent since the mid-60s. Greeley contends that people are protesting archaic attitudes in ecclesiastical authority–particularly the 1968 letter condemning birth control devices–by voting with their pocketbooks. Meanwhile, inflation and age exact a toll on the vast infrastructure of Catholic Chicago.
We stop on 63rd Street at Saint Rita Church, which has not been closed, although the parish high school down the block has been sold to the city’s public schools. Saint Rita’s is a huge structure of pale yellow Indiana limestone slab. As the afternoon sun fades, John Doe strides up the steps to the portals of the church, which are locked. “I guess it’s the crime,” he bristles. “Hell of a note, huh?” He gazes up. “This church was built in 1948 for $2 million and it was paid for in three years. Everyone made good dough during the war, and many of them saved and gave to the church. There’s a pipe organ inside that’s a hundred feet wide–all brass–and the interior has marble flying buttresses, columns, a white marble altar with huge pillars and a marble canopy 50 feet high over the altar. You build a place like this today it’d cost 50 million.”
He casts a final glance at the old stomping grounds. “See that closed-circuit TV antenna on top of the school? Cody wasted a big bundle with the idea that he wanted his own television station. A few of the old-time pastors resisted. They were forced to join in under pain of having their parishes taken away. They built the studios downtown and every parish had to ante up its share. Then it flopped and they sold it all to a local public broadcasting channel for ten cents on the dollar.”
A scowl crosses his face. “What Bernardin has done is worse. It’s one thing to waste money. It’s another thing to entrust your kid to a system that protects child molesters.”
Doe’s wife Jane was born into a wealthier family on the north side. She too is an attorney. Sitting at the desk in her office, framed by a radiant view of the Chicago skyline, she smiles when she says that nuns were a shaping influence in her life. “Just say that I am a product of Catholic schooling with none of the memories of horrendous discipline situations that some Catholics carry from their student days. I remember in the third grade being sick with rheumatic fever, and when I went back to school I told my mother, ‘It’s just like coming home.'”
She remembers a nun who taught her in high school. “She’s dead now, God rest her soul. She and her brother, who was a Jesuit priest, spoke to each other in Latin. They didn’t consider it a dead language. She was such an impressive woman, logical and very clear of thought–the closest thing to a counselor I had. Growing up, I never met a priest or nun I didn’t love or trust. I can remember in the eighth grade having a mad crush on a Byzantine-rite priest. After Mass one day he put on a red turtleneck. I had never seen a priest without a Roman collar.” She laughs. “He looked so attractive!”
Jane met her husband at a local law school. “It was a class in federal taxes,” she chuckles. “He sat with a group of friends and was the only one who wasn’t married. They took a bet to see if he could get me on a date.”
They dated five years, into their first jobs as attorneys, after which they wed. During her legal career Jane had occasion to represent indigents in juvenile court. “I was taught that the person to whom God gives many gifts has a lot demanded of her. Taking those cases was my giving back part of what was given to me–a nourishing home, loving parents who cared.”
She recalls one case that now holds special meaning for her. A man was accused of abusing his son and daughter in his home. “The little boy was epileptic,” she recalls, “and the father’s treatment of his seizures was to tie the child in a chair and beat him with a chain. The little girl had been held down by her father and raped by four of his friends. The children were in protective custody, terrified of court, terrified of their father. The mother was around, knew, and was a mope. I represented the children, and the state’s attorney asked if I’d help prepare them for testifying. We knew a lot from what the brother had told the social worker and the girl had told her foster mother. We were worried about the girl; she had gone into a near-catatonic state in a pretrial meeting when we asked her questions.
“Back then you couldn’t put on hearsay statements [from witnesses like the social worker or foster mother]. Now they are admissible in juvenile proceedings. The kids were going to testify in chambers, before a judge and court reporter. We kept telling them it wasn’t going to be a scary place, that the judge liked children, he wanted to know if they wanted to go back to their father or not.
“The little boy did fine, but the little girl’s eyes began to glaze over and she couldn’t talk. The judge was nonplussed: he couldn’t make a finding of fact on her behalf without her testimony, and [if he didn’t] there would be a good possibility the father would get her back. So I asked the judge for leave to take her outside for a glass of water. We went outside and I put my arms around her; she was clinging to me. I said, ‘It’s gonna be all right, honey. All you have to do is tell it once.’ When we went back in she was able to tell the judge enough; they stayed with the foster mother who had been caring for them. The girl still calls me from time to time.”
Jane Doe was well into her 30s when her only child was born. By then the Does were doing well financially and had moved to the northern suburbs. For several years Jane took a hiatus from full-time legal work to raise Richard. When the boy began school, she resumed her legal career, with her mother picking the boy up after school. Most mornings the Does drove downtown together; if John worked late and caught the commuter train, Jane dictated legal notes on a tape recorder she kept in the car.
The boy was in first grade at the local parochial school when life’s smooth surface began to crack.
It was spring 1987. The Does had begun to fear that Richard’s attention span was falling off; he was forgetting homework assignments, leaving things at school. His first-grade teacher, a beloved woman, had recently died of a cancer that progressed quite rapidly. “The kids in his class were devastated,” says Jane. “I spoke to other parents, who said their kids were not doing well, and I figured that was the problem.” When school ended, the Does spent vacation stretches at their cottage in rural Wisconsin.
But a month into second grade, the child was still bringing home poor grades. Jane spoke with his teacher, who had known the boy since infancy and whose daughters had baby-sat for him; she agreed that Richard was not performing as he should. “Did you receive my note?” the teacher asked. “What note?” said Jane. After school, mother and teacher went through the boy’s desk; it was like a squirrel’s nest, Jane recalls, stuffed with the teacher’s notes to parents and papers with bad grades not brought home. “It doesn’t make sense,” said the teacher. “He’s too bright.”
“Even if it’s a bad grade,” Jane told her son later, “we’ve got to see it. We want to help you improve.” The boy agreed, but continued leaving papers at school. “I forgot–sorry, Mom,” he’d say at night. His attention span showed other lapses. When sent to his room for a sweater, he’d return with a blank expression and say, “I forgot what I was sent for.” Jane thought it very strange. Learning disabilities are usually detectable early, she believed; they don’t pop up suddenly. The boy was also becoming more quiet and withdrawn. On the teacher’s advice, Jane had his hearing and vision tested; no impairments were found. In spring of second grade, the teacher suggested that although Richard was passing, he should undergo testing for learning disabilities.
On the advice of Dr. Anne Brown, an Evanston psychologist she had met during juvenile court work, Jane arranged for the boy to see Rita Sussman, a specialist in child testing. At the first session, Richard and his parents sat with Sussman. She asked him to discuss his problem. “The teacher tells us to take our book and turn to a certain page,” he replied. “I get the book and can’t remember what page or what problems to do.”
Sussman thanked him. “That’s a good assessment for a little boy. Is there anything else at school that’s a problem?”
“I’m getting beaten up every day on the playground.”
The parents were stunned. “We’d seen bruises on his arms and shins,” recalls Jane, “but didn’t think much of it. He told us he had fallen down in gym.” Now John Doe bought boxing gloves and headgear, telling his son not to start a fight, but to defend himself if one began. And if he was sent to the principal’s office for fighting, his father said, call him on the spot.
Says Jane: “I told him to stay by the lunch mother during recess. He said, ‘Aw, Mom. She watches the girls.'” Jane also spoke about the fighting to Richard’s teacher, who said she’d inform the principal, Barbara Hill*, and speak with the mothers who volunteered as lunchtime monitors.
Months before, Jane recalls, the teacher had told her she communicated with Miss Hill by notes because the principal was a difficult woman and it was easier to get along with her that way. At the time Jane chalked it up to personality differences.
The Does wondered why second-graders in an affluent suburban parochial school were fighting so much. Their Richard was no sissy, and he got along well with kids on the block. His two grandmothers visited often–Jane’s mother lived close by–and the Does felt their son had a wholesome home environment. The boy took a battery of tests under Rita Sussman. As the end of the school year neared, Sussman told the parents that she found no signs of serious disability but had never seen such a depressed child. At the final meeting with the family, Sussman said: “Now Richard, tell your parents what you tell me.”
“I’m being driven crazy. They’re beating me up every day in school.”
Jane began calling Miss Hill. “At first I thought it was telephone tag,” she says. “We just kept missing each other. I made about ten calls. I was in court during a lot of that time. I’d call at lunch and she was unavailable. It took almost two months to get in touch with her.”
In summer the boy attended day camp at the school–and still came home with cuts and bruises. His parents arrived unannounced at the gym one morning and met with the camp director. While they spoke, Richard came in from the school yard with a cut knee and said he had been thrown to the ground outside. The camp director reprimanded the boy who had hurt Richard, called his parents and alerted them to the problem, changed the grouping of kids at the camp, and admonished the counselors to be extra careful. “She knew how to take charge,” John Doe says of the camp director. “We wondered what was wrong with the principal.”
It was July when Jane Doe finally reached Miss Hill on the telephone. According to Jane, the principal said: “If this is about class listings for the fall, I’m not changing any. Is that what it’s about?”
“Indirectly, yes. It’s about a problem on the playground. And if it’s not cleared up our son won’t be on class listings for the fall.”
Miss Hill set an afternoon appointment several days hence.
John Doe was irritated by the woman’s delays. While playing at the Does’, two of Richard’s friends had mentioned school-yard fights within earshot of the parents. Chatting with the boys, John Doe realized that the playground was a pretty rough place, and that bothered him because it didn’t make sense. This was the northern suburbs, not the south side.
Meanwhile, Jane learned through a friend that the parish school board had voted not to renew Barbara Hill’s contract as principal when it expired, but that the pastor, Father Joseph Lake*, had intervened and secured a new four-year contract. Before meeting with Hill, the boy’s parents went to the rectory and met with Father Lake, a silver-haired man in late middle age, whom they knew passingly from Sunday Mass.
Well before that night, other parishioners had grown disenchanted with Father Lake. In early 1986, lay leaders had written auxiliary bishop Timothy Lyne, complaining of poor morale and “lack of leadership” on the part of Lake and another parish priest. Lyne replied: “We hope to work out a way of enabling them to be efficient masters of the people . . . they are human beings who should not be dismissed without every effort being made to enable them to upgrade their performance. . . . This takes time and patience.”
A follow-up letter to Lyne, signed by six lay leaders, complained of Lake’s refusal to hire a music director and religious-education worker the parish board had chosen. “We are still very much concerned regarding the health of our pastor,” they wrote. “He has been under great stress since his appointment here . . . [and] continues to look tired and drawn. We feel that this situation should be carefully monitored for Fr. Lake’s sake more than anything else.”
In a recent interview, one of the lay leaders said of Lake: “He’s ineffective and does not interact with people. Ask him how he feels and he says, ‘Oh, how am I supposed to feel?’ It’s like he’s numb. Barbara Hill is an excellent math teacher but she is a very difficult person to deal with. She is never wrong. We had a very good parish. The strong lay leaders have left. Lake and Hill’s misery rubbed off on the whole community. The Does are an expression of what’s wrong here. I don’t know what happened with them, but they were mistreated somehow.”
According to the Does, when they met with Lake that summer night in 1988, they told him about the school fighting and he said that he wished they had taken it up with Miss Hill. He refused to read Rita Sussman’s evaluation of their son, saying, “I don’t run the school.”
When John Doe asked why Lake had overruled the parish school board’s decision not to renew Hill’s contract, he replied: “Well, there was a little more to it than that”–explaining that a member of the board had changed her vote. But, said Jane, hadn’t he asked people to change their votes? Lake replied that the school board made recommendations but he had final authority.
“The buck stops here,” said John Doe. “It’s your parish, and your school.”
According to the Does, Lake replied, “I don’t see it that way”–and told them to take it up with Miss Hill. Jane explained that they had an appointment to see her. According to the Does, Father Lake said, “I won’t discuss this with her until after you have met with her.”
When they again mentioned school-yard fights, the Does say, Father Lake told them that if children were not given proper training at home, the school could do little to overcome those deficiencies. They recall his saying, “I see older kids fighting in the school yard, but I’ve never seen the younger kids doing it.”
They also recall Father Lake again telling them, as they left the rectory, that he would not speak to Miss Hill about the problem until after they met with her. Driving home, they wondered why he had twice said he would not talk with her. They were more concerned that he had seen older children fighting and thought so little of it. “What kind of school are they running?” John Doe fumed.
Short and stout, with long hair, Miss Hill earned a BA in mathematics from the University of Illinois in Champaign. In 1965 she joined the Sisters of Mercy, earned a masters in education, and from 1974 to 1981 was principal of a black parish on the south side that has since been closed. She left the order and was hired to teach math at the Does’ parish. The previous pastor had promoted her to principal.
According to the Does, when they arrived at her office, John said: “Well, I suppose Father Lake has told you why we’re here.”
“Oh yes, Father and I discussed it.”
Her reply registered on both parents at once.
When they explained that their son was getting beat up in the school yard, she replied: “It can’t be happening.” John Doe said, “We’ve seen the bruises.”
She told them that lunch mothers monitored the children. But the women stand at one side of the building, Jane countered, and her son was being chased and hit on the other side. “She replied that the children were not allowed to do that,” Jane recalls. “She told us our son was oversensitive, that he misinterpreted children’s play, and she said rather emphatically, ‘A principal’s place is not on the playground.'”
John Doe told her, “When four boys hold my son down and two of them kick him, that’s not play.”
“That can’t be happening,” Hill reportedly stated, calling the fights “a figment of [the boy’s] imagination.”
Miss Hill also refused to read Sussman’s testing results.
John Doe brought up an occasion when his son had not been allowed to call him after being sent to the principal’s office. He wanted to know why. Hill said that she had refused the request; her rules were her rules.
The Does told her their son would not return to the school and demanded his transcripts before leaving.
It was now mid-July. On Sussman’s advice, Jane Doe discussed the need for therapy with Anne Brown, the Evanston psychologist. Brown felt it was premature: as the boy got distance from the old school, she felt, he would probably start opening up to his parents. Indeed, after telling Richard that he would be a student at a new school that fall, his parents did notice a change. In conversation with Jane, Richard mentioned a boy with whom he had fought on the playground. “Suppose he goes to some other school, would I go back to [the old school]?” “No,” Jane said, “the school is not well run and we feel you’ll be happier at another school.” He asked the same question about a second boy with whom he had fought; again his mother said no.
A few days later, he said, “Suppose Father Lake went somewhere else. Would I go back then?” Jane said no, gently reiterating that he would be happier at the new school they had visited. But now she sensed a method to his questions: he was testing to see if there was any condition under which his parents would return him to the old school. “My husband and I,” Jane says, “were in total agreement that the chaos there could not be turned around in a month or two. When Richard asked about Father Lake going somewhere else, I chalked it off as another ‘suppose.’ So one night, we were at an Italian restaurant with my mother and he said, ‘I’d like to have a meeting.’ We figured it was about kids beating him up. So when we got home, typical me, I had my tape recorder in the kitchen and asked if he would mind my putting it on. He said, ‘That’s OK, Mom.’ I thought if we have a tape, we can play it for the school board. My son wasn’t returning, but maybe we can help the rest of the kids.”
Jane’s experience in juvenile court told her that if a child had something difficult to say, it was better to have him say it once and be done with it. “I’m not a psychologist,” she says, “but I knew if something was traumatic, you don’t make them repeat, repeat, repeat. As far as I was concerned it was bruises and emotional pain, but it had to hurt to be beat up by your companions and peers.”
So the Doe family, including Jane’s mother, gathered in the living room around the tape recorder and held their “meeting,” never dreaming the boy would talk about more than school-yard fights, or that a 23-page transcript of the tape would one day become Exhibit H in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the church they’d been taught to honor and obey.
Attorney Mary Dempsey, who represents Father Lake, and attorney Patricia Bobb, who represents Barbara Hill, refused to let them be interviewed for this article. In response to the suit filed by the Does, the defendants have filed counterclaims accusing the Does of character defamation. “All the allegations in the [Does’ legal] complaint are libelous,” said Dempsey, who declined to answer further questions, citing “rules in Illinois about ongoing litigation and talking to the press.”
Patricia Bobb also declined to discuss specifics of the case, but cited the counterclaims in saying: “It’s an absolute outrage to me that my client has to be put through this.”
James A. Serritella, the archdiocese’s chief attorney, declined to discuss specifics of the litigation, as did Sister Joy Clough, spokesperson for Cardinal Bernardin and the archdiocese.
Corporate defense attorneys frequently decline to discuss sensitive cases with reporters. Nor is it uncommon for church officials to refuse comment about embarrassing lawsuits involving clergy. In many similar cases across the country, attorneys have requested protective orders from judges to seal court records. Sometimes these requests are made by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, to preserve their clients’ anonymity; more often, church attorneys have requested the seal orders to reduce the possibility that other families with abused children will file suit, and to bar access by the news media to sensitive documents.
In the Does’ lawsuit, defense attorneys requested a seal order more than a year after the suit was filed. The court denied the request. The thick stack of documents in the public file includes the record of a state’s attorney’s interrogations of the boy, filed by the defense, fraught with graphic statements by the child of alleged abuse, and motions filed by the Does’ attorney, Thomas Decker, that broaden the scope of the case with references to a previous proceeding involving Father Lake. In addition, a young man who made accusations about other priests, and then changed his story, has triggered a cross fire of motions by attorneys on both sides. These documents were removed from the public file long after being obtained for this article.
The court record does not include psychological evaluations of the priest and principal (which does not mean that none exist), nor does it offer much insight into church investigations or safeguards. Rather the record affords a detailed picture of events from the Does’ viewpoint. What is presented here is an account based on available documents, buttressed by interviews with those who were willing to talk.
In the Does’ living room, the tape recorder running, Richard talked about the playground fights with other boys. He also said that when he was sent to Miss Hill’s office with a bloody nose, she said “you look ugly” and told him not to return. But return he did after being attacked again. During those visits, he told his parents, Hill used obscene language in insulting him. When the boy spoke the words, his parents were flabbergasted and his distraught grandmother left the room.
For the benefit of the tape, Jane said: “Who’s in this room here with you?”
“My dad and my mom.”
“Have you ever heard Dad or Mom call you that?”
In the transcript, the boy says Hill told him, “You’re mentally retarded.” He names another child who was brought to the office because of school-yard fighting, and other boys, all of whose names are blotted out of the transcript.
On July 29, 1988, John Doe wrote to members of the parish school board, explaining why his son was leaving for another school: In contrast with the camp director’s swift response, Lake and Hill offered no sign of taking “the comprehensive action necessary to end this atmosphere of abuse, both physical and verbal.” Doe sent copies of the letter to Cardinal Bernardin and two nuns in the archdiocesan school administration. But when he called other parents, Doe admits, it was like hitting a brick wall. Some felt there was a problem, he says, but that it was not that serious. As they continued calling, however, the Does learned that some other parents had removed their children from the school, out of general dissatisfaction with its operation.
On August 9, Father Lake wrote John Doe by hand:
“It is with deep regret that I read you were forced to move your child from [our] school. I am grateful that you brought your situation to our attention. However, I disagree with your charge of a lack of positive response and corrective action. We have looked into the matter of discipline, supervision and abuse. We will continue to emphasize Christian values of love & respect for one another [and] take necessary corrective action in order to provide a safe & orderly atmosphere for the children.”
Doe’s letter to the board did not cite Miss Hill’s alleged profanities. He says he wanted to alert parents to a problem, figuring it would be discussed in detail at a board meeting. But no one responded to the letter. He left messages for Sister Mary Brian Costello, superintendent of instruction for the archdiocesan schools. A month later he spoke with Sister Costello’s secretary, who referred him to Sister Ann Kathleen McDonnell, who requested a “reconciliation meeting.”
On September 18, 1988, the Does met with Sister McDonnell, Miss Hill, and Ralph Bonaccorsi of the archdiocesan staff, who was there to serve as facilitator. But first Sister McDonnell telephoned John Doe and asked what he expected. Doe said he was making a record of what had happened to his son and wanted the church to investigate problems at the school. Sister McDonnell’s reply, he says, was that she had known Barbara Hill since she was a nun, and that nothing wrong had happened. “Then why bother with a meeting?” said Doe. “We want to be fair,” said Sister.
Safe in a new school, the boy told his parents that Hill had slapped him on several occasions.
In Sister McDonnell’s office, John Doe related an incident his son had described to him: a student had threatened Richard with a knife, Richard had grabbed it and given it to Hill, and she had returned the knife to the boy. Hill denied knowing anything about a knife, but as the Does pressed the matter, she said she remembered hearing something about a knife. Doe said that two other boys had told him about the knife incident. When the couple said the principal slapped their son, she emphatically denied it, and denied being verbally abusive.
Doe was not satisfied with the meeting. “What happens next and when does it happen?” he asked.
Bonaccorsi replied, “Well, normally we send you back to the parish.” Doe wanted someone to take action. Bonaccorsi said they would refer the matter to the archdiocesan attorney. Doe said: “When will I hear from him?” Bonaccorsi said within a week.
On September 29, 1988, Sister Kathleen McDonnell wrote informing the Does that the church was investigating the accusations, that they had reported the charges to the Department of Children and Family Services, as required by law, and that archdiocesan counsel James Serritella would be contacting them.
Like the Does, Jim Serritella is a product of Catholic Chicago. Raised on the west side, he pursued seminary studies as far as the elite Gregorian University in Rome before ultimately deciding on lay life. He then earned a master’s in economics and in 1971 a law degree from the University of Chicago. Like the Does, Serritella and his wife have one child; unlike John Doe, the average man in the pew, Serritella has risen into a rarefied orbit of bishops and princes of the church.
“I wanted to work within the system to make it better,” he told Donna Gill of Chicago Lawyer, likening “political freedom and democratic values” to a “very fragile flower.” In that interview he stressed society’s need to provide health services for the poor.
As a young lawyer Serritella joined Reuben & Proctor, a firm fabled for its aggressive approach to litigation. Jonathan Turley, a Chicago native and graduate of Northwestern Law School who now teaches law at George Washington University, reflects a common opinion when he says the firm was marked by “a law-of-the-jungle, Darwinistic attitude. The prototypical Reuben attorney was driving, unrelenting, using litigation as a trial by ordeal.” Reuben’s clients included the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Tribune, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.
To this firm Serritella brought a long church background that perhaps helped him cement ties with Cardinal Cody, whose imperial aloofness was legendary. During his stormy Chicago years, Cody performed few weddings; two that he did perform were those of Mayor Michael Bilandic and Jim Serritella. In a biography of Cardinal Bernardin, Eugene Kennedy wrote that during the Sun-Times’s famous probe of Cody’s bizarre dealings, Reuben and Serritella advised the late cardinal “to stonewall” the federal investigation of his finances, “which they termed an outrageous breach of the separation of church and state.”
Cardinal Cody’s attorneys made quite a pair–Serritella, a large, heavy man rooted in the culture of the church, and Don Reuben, much smaller, a Jew who knew the city’s legal labyrinth as a politician knows his wards. After Cody’s death, Bernardin became archbishop and later cardinal. In 1986 Reuben & Proctor merged with the staid firm of Isham, Lincoln & Beale; when that ill-conceived megafirm collapsed, Serritella went to Mayer, Brown & Platt, taking the archdiocesan account with him.
Serritella is an embodiment of the Catholic establishment, having served as a trustee of Saint Xavier College, Mundelein College, Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary, and Loretto Hospital was well as on the board of directors of the Lyric Opera Guild and the Child Care Association of Illinois. The real estate, contracts, insurance, and probate work that Mayer, Brown & Platt perform for the nation’s largest archdiocese, 2.3 million Catholics, makes it one of the firm’s most important clients.
As counsel for the archdiocese, Serritella became a leading figure in the national association of diocesan attorneys–the kind of loyal, blue-chip Catholics who take pride in their work for the church-as-corporation. He has written on church legal issues and in recent years has lectured various groups on the unenviable task of defending the church when priests are accused of molesting children.
Since the mid-80s, at least four local suits have been settled by the archdiocese with victims. “Jim Serritella is a decent, humane guy,” says Patrick Murphy, Chicago’s public guardian, who represents underprivileged youths. Murphy negotiated settlements with Serritella for youngsters abused in a youth home. He refuses to discuss monetary details, but insists that Serritella showed sensitivity to those who had been harmed.
Not every plaintiff, however, would agree on the subject of Serritella’s sensitivity. There are those, including the Does, who see a great discrepancy between the values professed by the Catholic church and the tactics employed by its legal counsel in Chicago.
When the church is sued in a child molestation case, its defense attorneys tread a sinuous moral line. The church-as-defendant, a corporation accused of wrongdoing, has rights to uphold, especially when monetary damages are being sought. But the church is also a community of faith, with moral and pastoral responsibilities. How should its legal defense be balanced against the demands of pastorship? Can church attorneys justify using the same sort of hardball tactics they’d use to defend a drug manufacturer in a product liability case? Should the church offer solace, reconciliation, or counseling to a family that feels it has been abused at the hands of a priest? In light of the fact that child molesters are often repeat offenders, should the church remove an accused priest from contact with children, in order to preclude the possibility of further anguish? Can it offer solace or remove the accused without appearing to admit his guilt?
These questions and the legal nightmare they suggest erupted into public view in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, where the Reverend Gilbert Gauthe molested dozens of boys in rural Cajun parishes during the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1983 he was suspended from the priesthood. When Bishop Gerard Frey failed to meet with aggrieved parishioners, two Catholic attorneys launched civil action, and in 1984 negotiated claims of $4.2 million for nine youngsters. Gauthe, who admitted sexual crimes in civil testimony, entered a plea bargain in criminal proceedings and received a 20-year no-parole prison term. In civil depositions, church officials testified that Gauthe was three times transferred to new parishes following complaints of his sexual advances on children. Nevertheless, at Christmas 1977 he was assigned to a remote rural parish where he lived alone for five and a half years with little boys as frequent guests. Revelations such as these prompted a flurry of subsequent lawsuits; to date the diocese and its insurers have paid some $22 million in damages to more than 30 different families.
In June 1985, after a dozen cases surfaced in scattered states, the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly, published several articles on pedophilia in the priesthood, including one by this reporter on the Gilbert Gauthe case. An accompanying editorial criticized bishops for “an even greater scandal” of cover-up tactics–keeping parents at arm’s length and reassigning pedophile priests to new parishes. The editorial, which was cited by many newspapers over the next few years, advocated monitoring boards of lay people, therapists, and priests to respond compassionately and openly when cases arose.
By 1986, with cases breaking roughly once a week, a stain of scandal was spreading across the map of the domestic church. Time and again, diocesan officials would stonewall complaining families, triggering litigation and ugly news stories. The financial stakes rose dramatically if the plaintiffs’ attorneys could prove that a bishop knew a priest had a prior history of such activity–like Adamson in Minnesota and Gauthe in Louisiana, to cite but two.
Attorney Jeffrey Anderson of Saint Paul has litigated 50 such cases, including eight for Adamson victims; he has three more pending. Anderson and other plaintiffs’ attorneys have charted a new field of civil torts, reaching into the “deep pockets”–lawyers’ parlance for sources of money to mine–of the insurance firms that carry diocesan liability policies. In years past, most claims against such policies involved injuries on church property or accidents involving church vehicles. In early sex abuse cases, dioceses generally paid the deductible, or 15 percent of the settlement, with insurers paying the rest. In Lafayette the diocese has paid about $5 million of the $22 million total. In Minnesota, all of the punitive damages–up to $2.7 million, depending on the outcome of the appeals–will have to be paid by the dioceses; their policies covered only compensatory damages.
Coverage began evaporating as actuarial forecasts sent shock waves through the insurance industry. Effective January 1, 1986, the locally based Gallagher Bassett company, which underwrites policies for half the nation’s dioceses, imposed an exclusionary clause: no longer would policies cover child-molesting priests.
Well before liability coverage ended, James Serritella blunted a potentially damaging case brought against the Archdiocese of Chicago. In July 1982, an assistant pastor in the northwest suburbs took several boys to a lake house near the Wisconsin border and allegedly fondled a 14-year-old. Once home, the boy told his parents, adding that the priest had alcohol and marijuana available in the house. The parents met with the pastor, who told them: “Pursue it. This man has a problem with young boys.” The couple entreated archdiocesan officials Father Kenneth Velo and auxiliary bishop Richard Keating to get the priest into therapy.
Says the mother, Hilary Stiles: “We were stonewalled. Velo said there was nothing in his [personnel] records. He said, ‘You’re dealing with motherly instinct. Nothing happened. You can’t prove it and even a court of law would not see it that way.'” The priest remained in the parish for 18 months while the dispute dragged on. “Kids kept visiting him,” continues Stiles. “Parish staff wrote letters supporting us and held raffles to help with our legal fees.”
According to Stiles, criminal prosecution of the priest faltered because two boys “supposedly had conflicting stories.” The investigating detective, Portia Wallace, who now works for the Lake County Children’s Advocacy Center, says that the family’s filing of a civil suit thwarted her attempt to conduct a criminal prosecution. “We had a verbal agreement with their lawyer not to file the suit till we finished investigating.” But, says Wallace, “I believe the priest is a pedophile. My main beef was with the archdiocese. It looked as though every time there was a complaint [against him], they’d move him [to another parish]. They just blew me off, man. They didn’t want anything to do with it. I lost a lot of respect for the Catholic church as a support system for their parishioners. It was like three monkeys–hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
Hilary Stiles is a pen name. Her 1987 book, Assault on Innocence, is an account of her family’s legal conflict with the church, with fictionalized names. For this article she provided documents from the lawsuit that had been filed in court. After the incident, the Stileses gathered statements from children and parents on the priest’s drinking and sexual overtures, then asked the archdiocese to remove him and reimburse their $6,500 in legal fees. That’s all it would have taken to keep them from filing a lawsuit. Late in 1983, according to Stiles, Serritella, hoping to avoid bad Christmas-season publicity, “offered us $1,500, no strings attached, if we would delay filing. When we refused, he offered to personally go to jail if we’d delay filing it.”
The suit, filed December 22, 1983, did make Christmas headlines, but then faded from media focus. During litigation, Stiles says, a private investigator followed her and someone rifled their garbage, apparently searching for papers pertaining to the suit.
A crucial turn in the conflict came when a 14-year-old boy who had visited the priest’s summer house with Stiles’s son asked to meet with Stiles’s attorney, Nancy Kaszak (now chief lawyer at the Chicago Park District). With the knowledge and approval of the boy’s parents, Kaszak arranged to meet him at a restaurant that he named. Though the thrust of his conversation was generally favorable toward the priest–he said that “people were out to get [him] because he is such a good priest”–he did speak of the priest’s drinking habits and occasional emotional outbursts, and he gave details of his visit to the lake house. Kaszak drafted an affidavit and sent it to the boy to sign. He returned it in the mail, unsigned, with “take out” written at some points in the margin, changing Kaszak’s draft. Stiles claims he made these changes in the priest’s presence. Kaszak did not file the affidavit.
But Serritella’s team did file an affidavit purporting to be the boy’s. It said that at the restaurant Kaszak told him to have “whatever I wanted” and that he did not eat a meal but had two cocktails–neglecting to specify, according to Kaszak’s response, that they were shrimp cocktails. The purported statement continued: “During our time there, there was quite a bit of talk about smoking, swearing, drinking, being naked and sex. Nancy wanted me to be frank and open with her. She asked me a lot of very personal questions about myself and my relationships. I was very nervous.”
This statement was disavowed by the boy and his parents; the judge in the case found it “not authentic or genuine” and ordered in expunged from the case file. “We had to go through an emergency pleading process to show it was a false affidavit,” says Stiles. “It took two attorneys 24 hours to invalidate it and it cost us $1,700 in attorneys’ fees and court costs. That shoved us over the edge financially.”
To keep the lawsuit alive the Stileses spent their savings and mortgaged the house; Hilary sold her jewelry. The priest was eventually transferred–three times, in fact. Twice, says Stiles, policemen in new parishes visited her, seeking information. Police kept surveillance on one of the rectories. “I know of two young men he molested before my son,” says Stiles. “They have since committed suicide.”
Finally in 1985, with $35,000 gone in lawyer fees, the Stileses accepted a $15,000 settlement and swallowed $20,000 in losses. The church admitted no guilt. In view of the six-figure settlements made in other states, Serritella had gotten the archdiocese off for a pittance.
But as a condition of the settlement, the judge ordered Cardinal Bernardin to meet with the plaintiffs. In his office that spring of 1985, Stiles says, “Bernardin pointed to a stack of papers on his desk, and told us they were sexual complaints against priests and took time to investigate. We said the whole issue of pedophilia needed to be addressed. He said our case had forced them to do that. He told us, ‘It’s still a mystery how your case got so out of hand.'”
The litigation ordeal took a more personal toll. “My husband wanted to put it behind us and reinvolve himself in parish life,” says Stiles, who plunged into writing a book while earning a master’s in theology. “We were both raised Catholic: it was the formation of our values and beliefs and morals. I discovered a lot of myths in the litigation process. I couldn’t go back to Mass. I couldn’t tolerate the hypocrisy. My husband became a eucharistic minister. I separated myself from the religion; the structure is insane. I felt I had to go beyond the institution to resume my faith life.”
In 1988, the couple divorced.
Asked for comment on this case and the Does’, James Serritella declined to discuss any litigation involving the archdiocese. Asked about general issues that diocesan attorneys face in such cases, he spoke in measured terms about factors that would affect the church’s potential liability. “There are a lot of issues. An issue of fact: did the person do it? Second is whether there was any prior knowledge on the part of a supervisor. Third is whether a person had been screened for his or her position.”
As for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s policy for handling child abuse accusations, he said: “I am not authorized to speak on their legal matters. Address questions to Sister Joy Clough [archdiocesan spokesperson]. Our firm is not a spokesman for any clients unless specifically authorized to do so.”
Last April, the Sun-Times reported that the archdiocese had “less than five” pending lawsuits for alleged child molestation. When I asked Sister Clough for comment on these, she declined to discuss specifics of any litigation. She said Cardinal Bernardin and other church officials would also be unavailable for comment. But she did refer to published policies on handling accusations that may arise. In the official archdiocesan paper, New World, on January 12, 1990, Cardinal Bernardin wrote, in a column on child sexual abuse: “The child and family are handled with sensitivity and compassion.” Detailed guidelines by Reverend Raymond Goedert, head of priests for the archdiocese, were contained in a February 28 letter to local clergy:
Sometimes it is alleged that the Church “tries to cover up cases of child abuse. Speaking from my experience . . . I can assure you that this is not the case in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Of course we do not announce our problems from the rooftops, but we do not sweep them under the rug either. Because the reputations and the mental health of the victims and the accused are involved, appropriate discretion is exercised. However, painstaking efforts are made to get to the truth of the situation. Complete cooperation is given to civil authorities investigating such cases. Counseling is provided for victims. Psychiatric evaluation of the accused is required. Depending on the findings, the appropriate remedial steps are taken.”
It is unclear whether Hilary Stiles’s 1985 meeting with Bernardin had any role in producing this policy. But her book had a marked impact beyond Chicago. Published by an obscure New Mexico press, Assault on Innocence was ignored by the Catholic press but got Hilary Stiles on television talk shows. In May 1988, when she appeared on Seattle’s KOMO TV Town Meeting, an audience member stunned viewers by calling a priest in her parish a pedophile. The woman subsequently told reporters that in childhood she had been abused by a sibling, who had been abused by the priest, James McGreal. McGreal had a 20-year history of molesting youngsters, one of whom, now an adult, spoke on another edition of the program. The public criticism caused Archbishop Raymond M. Hunthausen to remove McGreal from ministry. In a rare act of atonement, Hunthausen issued a pastoral letter calling on the church to “break the cycle of silence . . . [and] abuse in the human family.”
Hunthausen went further, supporting Therapy and Renewal Associates, a pioneering program that treats priests, nuns, and lay ministers for various problems. In an even rarer departure from the ecclesiastical norm, the program offers free counseling to victims of priests. Not only is this approach more compassionate than the stonewalling of other bishops, it also pays, according to a well-placed source knowledgeable of the insurance industry: “Hunthausen went right directly to the parishes with a pastoral letter, and in effect said [to victims], We as a church and parish family want to take care of you. They had only a few lawsuits. He treats it like a good corporate executive would, and people respond to it.”
Before 1985, Hunthausen and Bernardin were like most bishops in knowing little about pedophilia, which can be defined as an adult’s sexual fixation on children. Pedophiles seek children because their own psychosexual maturation has been stunted. Many were themselves abused as children and return to that age at which their mental topography was sexually defaced. Molestation rituals, which often include photography, are both a sick power drive and a desperate search for love. Often the fixation is addictive. According to one study, a regressive pedophile will molest an average of 265 children in a lifetime.
But not all men who molest children fit the pattern of the classic pedophile. The pathologies behind sex abuse can vary greatly. For some, sexual contact with a child can be spurred by a drug or alcohol addiction that alters the biochemistry of the brain; for others it can be triggered by intense depression or a psychotic break.
Most child sexual abuse occurs in the home–incest–and many cases go unreported. Social scientists have found no definitive baseline in society against which to measure the frequency of child molestation among clergy; in other words, we cannot be sure whether or to what extent priests are more likely than the rest of us to be child molesters. But the problem in clerical life is certainly substantial. Dr. Jay Feireman, a consulting psychiatrist at Villa Louis Martin, a monastic hospital that treats clergy in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, has stated that 600 child molesters have been treated at that facility alone. The Reverend Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has consulted on many cases, contends that 3,000 American priests are sexually attracted to children.
In A Secret World, a new study of celibacy, A.W. Richard Sipe, a Baltimore psychotherapist and former priest, estimates that 2 percent of priests are pedophiles, and an additional 4 percent are sexually drawn to youths but do not always act on the impulse. Sipe arrived at these estimates after having counseled or interviewed some 1,000 priests, plus 500 other sources, including women who had been sexually involved with priests.
Officials of the U.S. Catholic Conference challenge Sipe’s estimates as skewed because half of the priests in his sample were in treatment. Whatever the percentage, though, the absolute numbers are shocking. San Jose Mercury News reporter Carl M. Cannon tracked cases in two dozen scattered dioceses, and in late 1987 reported that “hundreds, if not thousands” of priests are sexually drawn to youngsters. “The church’s reluctance to address the problem is a time bomb waiting to detonate within American Catholicism.”
The media ramifications of any clergy case throw a cold shadow on the countless priests who serve the faithful with a true commitment to Catholic values. However strenuous a sacrifice celibacy may be, there is no evidence that it causes men to molest children any more than marriage causes incest. The church’s real problem is not that a fraction of priests molest children, but that a climate of secrecy and denial allows or even encourages bishops to harbor and recycle offenders, rather than dismissing them from clerical life. Loyola psychologist Eugene Kennedy in a 1988 interview called the pedophilia crisis “the sweating surface of a culture that is corrupting. Nationally, responsible journalists are beginning to interpret it as a cover-up story, which has a terribly negative potential for the church. It has failed to examine the conflicts about human sexuality that throb within it.”
The legal and financial costs of this denial are enormous: A plaintiff’s attorney has no trouble showing negligence if he or she can prove that church officials had prior knowledge of an accused priest’s sexual proclivities. In states that allow plaintiffs to collect punitive as well as compensatory damages, gross negligence of this kind can be grounds for greatly increasing the church’s monetary liability.
The moral costs are more terrible to contemplate: As youngsters the victims of sexual abuse are prone to acting out their anger in episodic violence and in precocious sexual acts that can lead to adult sexual disorders, especially frigidity among women. Some victims, particularly those who do not receive counseling or therapy early on, are stalked their whole lives by guilt and secrecy. Instead of helping them achieve salvation, the church leaves them with traumatic memories that lie like crosses on their souls.
A tragic inconsistency is at work here. The church that espouses the sanctity of life, defending rights of the unborn, has time and again betrayed that ethos by failing to uphold the rights of children.
Why do bishops reassign abusive priests? Catholicism teaches that man is imperfect, that sins should be forgiven. A layman might commit adultery, but if he confesses with true remorse, his priest absolves him, admonishing him to honor his marriage vow. Likewise a priest can fall from his vow, and if he is repentant the bishop will allow him to carry on. But when children are victims, how far should that ethos extend?
The growing priest shortage may well have something to do with it: simply put, the church needs the bodies. Whereas many judges consider child molesters incorrigible because of their high recidivism rates, Time magazine recently reported that 95 percent of the men treated at the Jemez Springs, New Mexico, facility returned to clerical life after treatment. Dr. Frank Valcour, medical director at another clergy hospital that treats sex offenders, Saint Luke Institute in Suitland, Maryland, recently wrote that 33 of 55 priests treated there for child sex abuse have been returned to clerical life and have not reoffended.
The church’s policy of trying to rehabilitate child abusers is grounded in the political dynamics of celibacy. Says a New York Jesuit, “Sexual secrecy and political secrecy go hand in hand.” Celibacy is a cornerstone of ecclesiastical governance, a system premised on sexual segregation as well as abstinence, with a historic emphasis on secrecy to avoid scandal. Therapist Sipe calls church structure “homosocial”–all power placed in one sex. Seen in this light, the pattern of recycling child molesters is not an aberration but a trait of the governing sensibility. It is a tradition–the way things have always been done. Bishops now seem to require greater medical attention for such offenders, but they still seek to reinstate them in clerical life, fixed up with great doses of tolerance.
Homosexuality is another phenomenon entwined in the web of clerical secrecy. Again, there are no precise percentages, but many Catholic commentators agree that in the early 1970s, when clerics began leaving in record numbers to marry, the number of gay priests began to increase proportionally. The Reverend Robert Nugent writes extensively on homophobia and visits many dioceses, meeting with homosexual priests in support groups aimed at fostering celibacy. Nugent estimates that a third of the nation’s priests are homosexual in orientation. In A Secret World, Sipe estimates that 20 percent of priests are homosexual, half of them sexually active. Says he: “I know bishops who believe it’s closer to 40 percent.” The Reverend John Yockey, who teaches at the Washington Theological Union, has called the gay incidence “from disproportionate to overwhelming. Forty percent would not be an unreasonable estimate.”
A qualified 50 percent estimate was given in Gay Priests, a 1989 anthology that included four essays by priests under pseudonyms. Editor James Wolf, a married sociologist formerly at the University of Chicago, wrote in the lead essay that his colleagues were unable to obtain a scientifically random sample because respondents feared that if their identities became known they might be punished by their bishops. Instead, the four priests distributed 101 questionnaires through a network of gay clergy friends, many of them in the midwest. Flouting celibacy was a key theme of the four anonymous essayists, one of whom had AIDS, although the book did not say so.
Andrew Greeley has criticized the Sipe and Wolf studies for lacking solid probability samples. “But I do believe the problem is serious and the numbers substantial,” said Greeley. How substantial no one knows. Until the bishops commission a survey with reliable polling techniques, no definitive measurement is possible. But of course such a survey would be an admission that a problem exists, and that, says Greeley, “runs counter to their way of thinking.”
Whatever the numbers, the gay presence is shaping a new image of the priesthood. Last September New York Newsday reported that 200 American priests have died of or been stricken with AIDS. “Many bishops are still in denial about this problem,” said the Reverend John Keenan, a psychologist who directs Trinity House, a church-sponsored outpatient clinic for priests here in Chicago. “At Trinity House,” Newsday reported, “Keenan said he had treated one priest who had infected eight other priests.”
Many seminaries and religious orders now require that men pass an HIV test before admission for studies and again before ordination. Seminaries in Louisiana, Wisconsin, and California have been successfully sued by former students who were molested by older men or driven out for protesting gay promiscuity. In April a civil suit was filed against the Saint Vincent DePaul Seminary in Lemont (which is closing this year due to low enrollment) on behalf of a former student who alleges that a priest there sexually abused him between 1984 and 1988.
Although homosexuality is not clinically defined as a pathology, a 1986 Vatican letter enraged gays by calling the homosexual orientation “an objective disorder.” Still, a governing system marked by such officially negative views has long tolerated homosexuality within the ranks. Here too the common denominator is secrecy: so long as a priest does not publicly announce his orientation, the clerical culture can absorb all kinds of sexual behavior. The sad irony of this phenomenon is that as gay activists in groups like Dignity try to convince church officials to adopt a more humane attitude toward homosexuals, the hierarchy struggles to keep the lid on an array of homosexual conflicts within.
In theory, a priest’s sexual orientation matters not so long as he is chaste. Studies show that most child molesters are men who prey on little girls. Most homosexuals are not pedophiles. But in the vast majority of reported abuse cases involving priests, the victims are adolescent males. Pederasty is the term that ancient Greeks used in extolling the love between a man and a boy. Clinicians call it homosexual ephebophilia. Although most gay priests are not pederasts, it is an acute problem in the clerical climate.
Just as a priest who molests children tarnishes the image of the great majority who lead lives of moral witness, so the reports of promiscuous gay priests darken the reputation of those homosexual clerics who honorably serve the church. Overall, these phenomena have had a disastrous impact on the church’s ability to attract a new generation of priests. And yet, as the priest shortage mounts and the clerical culture decays, Rome stands firm on mandatory celibacy, with meager dissent from American bishops.
Those who do dissent, who dare to challenge the corrupt and calcified sexual politics of the Vatican, often feel the sting of the hierarchy’s wrath. A case in point is Father Charles Curran, who was fired from his tenured position at Catholic University for his dissent from the church’s position on birth control, and for arguing that “stable homosexual unions” are preferable to lonely lives of promiscuity. Similarly Catholic politicians, caught between law and faith, have been attacked for failing to adhere to the church’s stance on abortion. And in 1987, the Vatican humiliated Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle by removing some of his pastoral authority for supposed laxity in guiding his flock. One criticism was that Hunthausen allowed scheduled Masses for Dignity members at the cathedral. When Seattle Catholics mounted strong protest, Rome backed down. Ironically, it was Hunthausen who ended up facing the pedophilia issue with greater candor than any other American bishop.
In Tomorrow’s Catholics, Yesterday’s Church, Eugene Kennedy writes of such persecuted church liberals, limning the tragic flaw of the church’s celibate governance in a metaphor that gives voice to the suffering of families with children abused by priests:
“The underlying institutional dynamic, recognized or not, was indeed that of asexual assault, marked by strategies of degradation, on good people. . . . Asexuality is so named because it characterizes those who rationalize, often theologically, abusive activities that are a substitute for adult sexual relationships of which they are incapable . . . it is blind to family values, to the building up of the young that is the hallmark of a sound community.”
The Reverend Thomas Doyle is by no stretch of the imagination a liberal–he is, indeed, a man of great orthodoxy–but he too has experienced a form of this asexual assault. Doyle is another lawyer who came out of Chicago–a canon lawyer. In 1980 he was working on marriage annulments for the Chicago archdiocesan tribunal when he was tapped for a prestigious job at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C. A few years later he found himself monitoring a growing number of pedophilia cases, and he came to believe that if something didn’t change, the problem could become a full-blown church crisis. After consulting with the Reverend Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist who had founded Saint Luke Institute and treated many pedophiles, Doyle met with attorney Ray Mouton of Louisiana, who was defending Father Gilbert Gauthe against criminal charges. In the spring of 1985, the three men collaborated on a 93-page internal report that addressed legal, canonical, and medical issues of the burgeoning crisis, and disseminated the document to the nation’s bishops. The final draft was hammered out on a typewriter borrowed from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the O’Hare Hilton.
The report stated that the church could face $1 billion in civil claims over the next decade if remedial steps were not taken. Its key recommendations were that church officials should immediately respond with compassion when a family complained of a child’s abuse by a priest, and that they should offer pastoral care and therapy, while removing the priest to a competent medical environment. Although the report was informally used by a number of bishops, it was buried by the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which to this day have no policy guidelines on the topic. (Mark Chopko, general counsel of the USCC, says each bishop is responsible for his own diocese and thus sets his own policy. Doyle felt, however, that since the NCCB had issued lengthy pastoral letters on the American economy and nuclear weapons, it could also agree on a policy toward children abused by priests.)
In April 1986, Doyle and Mouton addressed a gathering of the East Coast Canon Law Society in Morristown, New Jersey. By this time more than 40 pedophile priest cases had surfaced. Planners of the conference had invited reporters. Neither Doyle nor Mouton had publicly discussed their report before then. That day Mouton told the gathering: “The Roman Catholic church cannot credibly exert moral authority externally in any area where the public perceives it as incapable of maintaining moral authority internally.”
Doyle called pedophilia “the most serious problem we in the church have faced in centuries.” And in an explicit reference to efforts by some bishops to intimidate victims’ families, he said: “You don’t send some imperious cleric out there to show them how bad they should feel about dragging the church’s name through the mud.” The May 4, 1986, New York Times quoted both men. Soon thereafter, Doyle’s canon law teaching position at Catholic University of America was not renewed. With his tour of duty at the embassy drawing to a close, Doyle, disillusioned at the hierarchy’s resistance to a firm policy, enlisted as an Air Force chaplain.
In June 1986, Doyle organized a closed conference at the Dominican Priory in River Forest for midwestern bishops and religious-order superiors. Several superiors, as well as Bishop Thomas Britenbach of Grand Rapids, Michigan, were in attendance. So was Ray Mouton of Louisiana. “Cardinal Bernardin did not attend,” Mouton recalled later, “nor did many of his staff. A number of seats in the room were empty. I think they were mad because the Times had quoted Doyle saying pedophilia was the worst problem in centuries.”
The late Richard Issel, a therapist who worked with the Chicago archdiocese, gave a clinical presentation. Doyle assessed the canonical issues. Mouton continued: “In my comments I stressed the importance of doing the morally correct thing–reaching out to the families. My message was, we’re the church, right? So let’s act like the church.”
When Jim Serritella arrived after lunch, the Hilary Stiles matter was a year behind him. Mouton’s idea of aligning the church with the victims did not mesh with Serritella’s approach, which was geared more to protecting institutional assets. According to Mouton, “Serritella said, ‘What you people have to remember is that when one of these situations develops, those people’–meaning the families–‘are the enemy, and I’m on your side.'”
In November 1987, on the eve of the American bishops’ autumn conference in Washington, Karen Henderson of the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a detailed story about the 1985 report and its burial by the hierarchy. In January 1988, Carl Cannon’s San Jose Mercury News series on pedophile priests ran on the Knight-Ridder wire, prompting Mark Chopko, general counsel of the U.S. Catholic Conference, to issue the first official statement from the hierarchy on the problem, committing the church to “healing” offenders and perpetrators. On March 17, Phil Donahue put the issue on network television. In an April 8, 1988, confidential memo to diocesan attorneys, Chopko echoed the approach Ray Mouton had advocated in the 1985 report:
“We are aware that in some cases diocesan or insurance attorneys, concerned that such efforts may be seen as a means to discourage potential civil actions, have counseled against contacting the victims or families. . . . Nevertheless, the dioceses should continue to contact the victims and families in an effort to show their true concern, and should offer the assistance and comfort of the Church in this time of need. If a damage action is to follow inevitably from the incident, it is better human relations to reconcile the injured in the Church. In the courtroom, it is often too late.”
Chopko’s words had an eerie resonance in Chicago, where the Does struggled to find assistance and comfort. In autumn of 1988, dissatisfied with the archdiocese’s “reconciliation meeting,” the couple again turned to Anne Brown, the Evanston therapist, for help.
Trained as a social-development psychologist, Brown has worked on a range of sexual abuse problems. As a consultant to the courts she has screened fathers accused of molesting children in bitter custody disputes, and sometimes found charges to be baseless. She evaluates and counsels pedophiles and nonaddictive child molesters; she also works with victims, incest families, and parents of impaired or abused children. It was in that capacity that she began meeting with John and Jane Doe.
“Initially I thought it was a school problem,” says Brown. “That was before I met with the boy. As Jane described it, my first assumption was that he had a learning disability. Then I thought the kid was being singled out to be bullied at recess. Then as the parents started telling me what the boy was saying about the principal, I got concerned. They didn’t want to hear this stuff. They spent thousands of dollars trying to find another explanation. They did not want it to be child abuse. I cannot tell you how sick they were–sick at heart, sick at soul.”
Safe in a new school, the boy was racked with nightmares. He wrote a will giving away his toys, and notes saying that he believed his death was imminent. On October 18, the child doubled over in pain and urinated blood; his parents rushed him to the hospital. When the doctor asked if this had happened before, he said, “At [the old school] when I was being beaten up”–which he had not told his parents before. After a series of tests, physicians said the probable cause was a torn urethra, or urinary tract.
Anne Brown had advised John Doe to set aside one night a week for “special time” between father and son, thinking that in this way the child might more comfortably open up to his father. A few days after his trip to the hospital, Richard told his father that Father Lake had kicked him in the groin, stomach, and back. Later that night, John Doe somberly told his wife, “I think that’s it. He’s told us the worst.”
“I don’t think so,” Jane replied. “I don’t want to upset you, but I think there’s something more. He’s just not settled.”
She remembered children from her days in juvenile court. Something happened when a child told everything; when the last painful fact came out, there was a visible leveling: the shoulders relaxed, the strained look on the face or tension in the eyes dissolved. Says Jane: “I kept watching my son, so keyed up and tight for so long. A little bit would come out, then a little bit more. I was praying this would be the end of it, but something told me he was still holding back.”
Anne Brown advised the Does to go immediately to the police with the kicking story. She didn’t want to begin treating the boy before the case entered the criminal justice system, for fear of jeopardizing any investigation or subsequent prosecution. “I suggested that they write down the information and let the law do it right,” she explains. “Once you introduce a therapist, the more people who talk to a kid, the more contaminated his words become in a legal sense. A lot of cases are blown because too many people talk to a kid and he becomes confused.”
On October 23, John Doe went to the village police. After talking to the boy, police officers visited Lake and Hill, who denied the accusations. The police decided there was no case without corroboration by other children, which they were unable to get.
Several days later, John and Jane Doe went to the offices of Mayer, Brown & Platt and met for the first time with Jim Serritella.
“He told us there were no prior problems with Lake or Hill, that he couldn’t understand it,” says Doe. “I gave him a transcript of the taped conversation with my boy, with names of other kids [who had been involved in fights] blotted out. I wanted a full accounting of Hill and Lake before helping him.” Serritella asked the Does to let a psychologist of his choosing screen the boy. “I told Serritella, ‘You come to my house and interview my son.’ He said, ‘No, it has to be done by our psychologist.’ I said, ‘Why yours and not ours?’ He said, ‘We have to use ours to determine whether Richard is telling the truth.'” Anne Brown told the parents that it would be harmful for another strange adult to pry into the boy’s troubled life, so they refused Serritella’s request.
On November 1, 1988, Serritella wrote the Does to say that the archdiocese had made a supplemental report to DCFS based on the Does’ most recent charges. “In addition, please be advised that Fr. Lake and Ms. Hill have been restricted in their contact with children pending the outcome of our investigation.”
The Department of Children and Family Services sent investigators to the school, but they, like the police, could not find other children to corroborate Richard Doe’s charges. A separate inquiry by Baker Street, Ltd., a private investigation firm commissioned by the Does, also failed to find other victims.
The chief obstacle in abuse investigations is that children are often terrified of telling people what has happened to them. Humiliated, confused, embarrassed, they retreat into a cocoon of secrecy, the unraveling of which can be painful and protracted. Some parents who learn that a child has been abused refuse to file charges because dealing with police, social workers, and the courts can traumatize the victim all over again. The McMartin day-care scandal in the Los Angeles suburbs, in which more than a dozen children claimed to have been molested, triggered the longest legal proceeding in California history, including a year and a half of preliminary hearings with child witnesses grilled for hours. After a seven-year legal epic marred by police and prosecutorial blunders, no one was convicted.
It took the Does more than a year, with help from the boy’s teacher, an education testing specialist, and a therapist, before the child told his parents that he had been abused. John Doe, a believer in systems and rules, was beginning to feel betrayed by his church. Not long after the meeting in which Jim Serritella had told them otherwise, the Does learned that Father Lake had indeed had a problem previously. It did not involve children, but violence and sexual conduct were at issue.
In 1983, as pastor of a parish on the southwest side, Lake fired the school principal, Mary Night*. In 1984 she filed a civil rights suit against Cardinal Bernardin, as head of the archdiocese, alleging unfair dismissal. That docket in federal court holds just a sparse collection of motions: most of the documents are impounded under a protective order secured by church counsel. Because of that order, Night and her attorney refused to give interviews for this article. But Thomas Decker, the Does’ attorney, in an amended complaint in their case, cites Night’s allegations in arguing that Lake’s behavior was “reasonably foreseeable to . . . Bernardin” before the priest was transferred to the Does’ north-suburban parish.
Decker’s complaint describes Night as a 20-year veteran of the archdiocesan schools, with a master’s degree in education. She was pursuing a doctorate when the problems began. Her signed affidavit in the Doe docket states that she has been a member of her southwest-side parish for 35 years and lives with her mother. Decker’s complaint states: “Miss Night alleged, among other things, that against her will and over her objections, the defendant Lake purposefully and repeatedly (a) touched her breasts; (b) slapped, kicked and hit her, producing bruises and contusions; (c) ridiculed her virginity and attempted to have sexual relations with her; and (d) touched her legs, knees, buttocks, and grabbed her around the neck.” The complaint further alleges that Lake gave her “gifts which he said were phallic symbols” and “perfume, cosmetics, and an undergarment called a ‘teddy.'”
Night’s affidavit states that after Lake discharged her, “I did not receive job offers from about fifteen Roman Catholic schools with which I interviewed for the position of principal. . . . Father Lake told me he had spoken negatively about me to representatives of two of the schools. . . . I have been employed since then as a store clerk or a teacher in the Chicago public school system.”
The summary of an inquiry by Baker Street, the criminal investigation firm hired by the Does, is also included in the legal record. It says:
“Numerous parishioners were interviewed as to the conditions at [Night’s parish] during Lake’s stay there. The following is a compilation of those interviews.
“Lake was a very unpopular pastor from the outset. He was universally seen as an aloof, dictatorial administrator who lacked any form of interest or empathy toward the church-members. [One family] stated that there was a tremendous breakdown of discipline and order in the school after his arrival. Lake’s general disregard for conditions is blamed.
“The complaints against Lake were general in nature and tolerated until the dismissal of Mary Night as principal, without any explanation on his part. However, this act led to a spontaneous movement on the part of virtually the entire parish to have Lake removed.”
In 1984, Lake went to the Does’ north-suburban parish, just as the priest in Hilary Stiles’s parish had been transferred to another. In a motion for the Does, Decker states: “The difference between Night’s allegations and those of the plaintiff Richard Doe are mainly those of sex and age.”
After six years of litigation, Mary Night awaits her day in court. In reference to her suit, a disaffected member of the Does’ parish says of Father Lake: “Frankly, they got him out of a pickle and gave him to us.”
The archdiocese’s position in the Night and Doe cases parallels the tough defense posture taken in the Stiles case–an approach seemingly at variance with recommendations spelled out by U.S. Catholic Conference counsel Chopko in his 1988 memo: “Offer the assistance and comfort of the Church in this time of need. If a damage action is to follow inevitably from the incident, it is better human relations to reconcile the injured in the Church.”
And yet, as all lawyers know, every case has its unique factors. The unwillingness of Lake and Hill, and of their attorneys and the church’s, to discuss allegations with a journalist does not mean that they lack information that may cast a different light on events cited in the legal record. Nor does it mean that the Chicago archdiocese, like many others, has not made changes in its approach to all such cases, based on past experiences.
Serritella himself articulated an apparent shift in attitude in a November 8, 1989, lecture at the Center for Church/State Studies at DePaul University College of Law. In a speech entitled “Misconduct of Clergy, Religious Employees and Volunteers,” he explained that an institution “may be liable under certain circumstances”–including “failure to screen employees . . . [and] act on available knowledge” and “failure to supervise adequately.” Echoing the 1985 internal document on which Father Doyle worked, Serritella this time endorsed the concept of an intervention team to determine if “the accused should be removed from the environment where the accusation arose.” And if the accused stayed in that environment, Serritella said, his activities “should be severely circumscribed.”
In another lecture, in May 1990 to officials of the Evangelical Covenant church, Serritella advised, “If there’s something dangerous on your property, you better get that thing off your property and analyze whether it’s dangerous or not before you let people have contact with it.” He also recommended that an intervention team include “a psychiatrist who is knowledgeable about sexual disorders. . . . The first step is that you remove the accused from the situation in which the accusation arose. And that’s a hard thing to do. If it’s a pastor, you say you’re suspended from pastoral duties and may not come near the church, pending investigation of the accusation. If it is a teacher, you are suspended with pay pending investigation, and you may not come near our church or our school or our program.”
In the same speech Serritella said: “I had a case where 20 years before the person was hired, they were convicted of exposure, and then the person was hired and proceeded to molest half a dozen children, and the prior conviction did play a role in the question of institutional responsibility. The point being, maybe you should not have hired somebody with that kind of a history to deal with children.”
As of this writing, Lake and Hill remain in their positions. (Hill, however, has announced her intention to leave the school at the end of this year.) Why have they not been removed? If the archdiocese is operating under the new, enlightened attitude recently expressed by Serritella, it must be because church officials and their attorneys, having investigated the accusations, are convinced that Lake and Hill are innocent. If, on the other hand, the archdiocese is operating under the old ethos of secrecy and denial, the two may remain because the archdiocese does not want to appear to be admitting that the charges are true; to put it another way, the church’s legal defense may be strengthened for leaving them where they are.
In late November 1988, the Does handed out a letter before a parish school board meeting, stating that archdiocesan policies gave each parish a degree of autonomy: “The striking of our son by Miss Hill, and her allowing Father Lake to strike him in her presence, is a direct policy/rule violation which the board had a duty to investigate.” Some parishioners were angered by the accusations; the Does say they received several hostile letters. But the parish school board president wrote to say, “as a parent myself I feel bad for you and your family” and wished them well at the new school where Richard had enrolled.
After learning of the Mary Night suit, Jane Doe telephoned auxiliary bishop Timothy Lyne and told him of the allegations that Lake had beaten a woman at his prior parish. She wanted Lake and Hill out, and reimbursement for her son’s medical treatment. According to Jane, the bishop said that reimbursement “seems pretty reasonable.”
“I have to know, because we’re trying to decide whether to pursue legal remedy.”
Lyne told her he was about to leave town but that Father Kenneth Velo would contact her the following Monday. (Velo was the chancery official who’d told Hilary Stiles in 1982 that no one would believe her.) At 4:30 Monday afternoon Velo had not called, so Jane called him. “Velo told me that Lyne had mentioned it but didn’t say that he had to do anything about it,” she says.
As 1988 drew to a close, the Does received a physician’s report indicating that one of Richard’s upper vertebrae had suffered a break. Richard began wearing a back brace. John Doe left a message for Serritella. Less than an hour later, the phone rang in Jane Doe’s office. “Hi. This is Tim Lyne. I hope you didn’t think I’d forgotten about you.”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Didn’t you talk to Ken Velo?”
She recounted that brief dialogue for Lyne, who said: “Hasn’t Mr. Serritella done a good job?”
“Frankly,” said Jane, “I don’t trust Mr. Serritella.” She was thinking, among other things, of his assurances that Father Lake had had no previous problems.
But Jim Serritella cares about children, said the bishop. Jane replied that she did not wish to interfere with the attorney-client relationship between Lyne and Serritella.
Therapist Anne Brown advised the parents to let the boy open up at his own pace; she also advised the parents on ways to strengthen bonds and deepen communication with their child. On January 12, as father and son took a booth at a suburban restaurant, the boy asked a question about oral sex. “That’s terrible,” said Doe. “Where’d you hear that?”
According to Doe, his son then said that the priest had sexually molested him.
Later that night, when an emotionally drained John Doe discussed the boy’s plight with Jane, she held back her emotions. When her husband fell asleep she went into the bathroom, sat on the floor, and began sobbing. In her words: “I know the damage that it does, and I knew that for however many years of his life he would have to deal with it. He was physically and sexually violated at an age when no child can agree to it or know what he’s doing.” That night she prayed: Don’t let him be what he might become. Help us to rectify as much of this as we can. Help us to protect other children, and God forgive me for what I want to do to those people.
John Doe reported the new allegations to the village police and to the state’s attorney’s office. Five days later no one had called. So Doe called reporter Pam Zekman of Channel Two. Zekman says she called the two agencies. Doe says that two hours after he called Zekman, Robert White* of the village police department and Dan Jordan of the state’s attorney’s mass molestation unit called within minutes of each other, asking him not to speak further with the reporter–an investigation was being launched.
“White wanted a one-time interview with my boy,” says Doe, “using a one-way viewing mirror to allow observation by other people, and to videotape it.” The Does consulted with psychologist Brown, who assured them this was correct procedure. The videotaping is done so the child won’t have to repeat his story as the case proceeds through legal channels.
Assistant state’s attorney Dan Jordan, however, took a different approach. After discussing the case with him, says John Doe, “Jordan said, ‘You’ll notice I’ve taken no notes. If it gets to trial, the stuff can’t be discoverable [by the defense]. Trust me. We know what we’re doing.'” Doe says that Jordan then threw the topic onto politics: his boss, Richie Daley, was running for mayor, and Jordan was hoping he’d win.
In late January of 1989 the Does took their son to the police station to prepare him for the ordeal ahead. Jordan wanted to meet the boy and acquaint him with others who would be sitting in on his interview.
The Does’ decision to go forward with Jordan was a voluntary one, based on Anne Brown’s advice and their own conviction as attorneys that behavior by the pastor and principal warranted criminal indictments.
On January 30, 1989, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the Does returned to the police station. According to John Doe, Jordan overruled police and insisted that the interview not be videotaped, because then it could be discoverable by a defense attorney. Nor was a one-way window used. The Does waited in the lobby.
Although Jordan’s policy was not to take notes, village police officer Kenneth Mack* took copious notes of the interviews with Richard Doe. They cover 21 pages of a documentary report that is now an exhibit in the Does’ lawsuit.
The session was held in a conference room, with a DCFS investigator present, Jordan asking the questions. The quotations that follow come from Officer Mack’s notes.
A crucial factor in the screening of abused children is their sense of time. Youngsters grow into a sense of linear time, with memories tied to eventful moments. They also tend to tell adults what they think they should say, as in a classroom. Truth hinges on trust. Fantasy is also a factor: stories, games, and TV shows meld with perceptions of reality.
Early in the interview, wrote Officer Mack, “Richard related he knows what the truth is, saying it ‘means you’re not lying’ and promised to tell the truth.” Then, in response to Jordan’s questions, he named teachers, friends, and “enemies” from the school yard–singling out a bully we shall call Bob. Four kids pinned him down while Bob and another boy beat him, Richard said. He kept mum “because he wanted to remain enrolled” at the school. On his seventh birthday, Richard and Bob were sent to Miss Hill’s office for fighting at recess. “Hill says nothing to either boy, then hits both boys on their buttocks. . . . It felt like an open handed slap . . . asked what if anything happened next Richard replied Hill called him and Bob ‘fucking assholes’ and sent them away.”
(According to Doe, Jordan said that he sought an interview with Bob, whose mother allowed him to speak by phone, with her listening. The child did not corroborate Richard’s story.)
The boys fought again, and this time the playground lunch mother sent only Richard to the principal’s office, as he had been seen throwing a punch. Officer Mack’s notes say:
“Ms. Hill and Fr. Lake are both present. . . . Fr. Lake said ‘you’re an asshole.’ Ms. Hill said ‘you’re a shithead.’ Asked what if anything happened next, Richard replied that Fr. Lake punched him in the stomach; that both he and Lake were standing at the time, that it did hurt [but] he did not fall down and did not cry. Miss Hill sent him to his classroom. . . . 3:37 pm: Richard leaves conference room to get a drink of water.
He returned three minutes later. To a question about when events occurred, he said that before his seventh birthday he had gone to Hill’s office only once. After Thanksgiving he and Bob got into it again–“a really good fight–I was winning”–and he was sent alone to Hill’s office. Lake, “wearing a shirt with a clerical collar but no coat or robes . . . called him a ‘fucker’ and ‘gave me the dirty finger'”–which Richard demonstrated.
“Asked to explain what if anything happened next, Richard said he couldn’t say but wanted instead to write down on a piece of paper . . . was furnished paper and pen but instead of writing, related verbally that Hill and Lake both took off their clothes–first Lake, then Hill. Asked how he had felt at this point, Richard said ‘I had an oh-my-God look on my face.'”
Jordan told Richard it was OK to change his story or admit any untruths.
“Richard says he understands . . . was asked if, when Lake started to disrobe, he had tried to leave the office. Richard related that he had, but Lake (now naked) reached through the doorway and pulled him back inside . . . kicked him in the middle of his back with a bare foot and that before kicking him, Lake had said ‘you fucking asshole’ . . . Lake and Hill then proceeded to roll about on the floor. . . . Did not attempt to leave because he was stunned and did not know what to do. 4:26 pm. (Richard is admonished that these events are not his fault and it’s okay to tell all–as long as it is true.) Lake then kissed Hill on the mouth–both still naked. Richard is asked if he has seen this type of behavior (naked adults rolling on the floor, kissing) before on TV, movies, magazines, etc. Reply: no.”
Later Richard confessed that he had once found a Playboy magazine that belonged to his father; he asked Jordan not to reveal that he had said so. He then described a scrape on Hill’s foot. He said that Lake and Hill made him disrobe; Lake took his picture with a camera and showed him 18 snapshot photographs of “penises” and “butts.” Where did the pictures come from? “Out of the inside coat pocket of a black trench coat he was wearing (coat like one the “Equalizer” wears) . . .”
After the session, Jordan told the Does not to discuss it with Richard, lest they contaminate his testimony. John Doe felt one session was enough. Jordan insisted on another.
Jordan had also demanded that the boy undergo a rectal exam to determine whether the anal canal had been torn. With great reluctance, the parents had consented. The test was done and no torn tissue was found.
The next afternoon Jane returned with Richard. John arrived and joined his wife, again waiting with her while Jordan questioned the boy in the conference room. Jordan again asked Richard about his encounters with Lake and Hill. Again Richard asked for pen and paper “as he did not like talking about it but then did relate verbally” essentially the same story, but with a couple of changes: He now said the sexual acts occurred the first time he encountered Lake in the principal’s office, not the second time as he had said the day before. He also said, according to Officer Mack’s notes, that after showing him the photographs of penises and butts, Lake “Pee pee’d on my shoes.” The shoes, Richard said, were on the floor at the time, not on his feet.
The boy was then put through a drill:
“Question: ‘Would you repeat the sequence of events again?’ Answer: ‘I went to the office and Lake said bad things to me’. Question: ‘What?’ Answer: ‘Shithead and asshole.’ Question: ‘How many times, total, ever–have you seen Lake and Hill naked?’ Answer: ‘Once.’ Question: ‘How many times, total, ever–have you been to Ms. Hill’s office when Lake was there? Answer: ‘Once.’ Question: ‘And this was when they rolled around naked on the floor, took your clothes off . . . ‘ Answer: ‘Yes.'”
Then Jordan asked the child what he thought “would happen when you told your dad these things?” Answer: “He would be mad.” (Abused children often fear that parents will punish them for sexual activities they intuitively sense are wrong.) Jordan asked Richard if he said anything to his father about the previous day’s interview. Yes, he mentioned a sexual act. Now Jordan was bearing down: “Are you afraid to tell us everything?” The boy said he was afraid because sometimes his father yelled at him; sometimes, he confided, his father “acts like King Kong.” Richard said, “I think he’s mad at me”–meaning his father was mad at that moment? But his father was outside in the hall. Did he mean that his father was mad because yesterday he told Jordan about a Playboy magazine? Or because a priest had abused him? Or was the boy mad in his own small soul at Jordan?
Jordan now pressed on with a line of questioning whose sole purpose seems to have been to humiliate the boy. He asked Richard about his visit with the doctor to whom Jordan had sent him. “What did the doctor ask you yesterday?” Jordan asked. “I don’t know,” said the boy. Jordan: “What did the doctor do to you yesterday?” The boy: “He just put his finger in my butt and left.” Question: “What else?” Answer: “Put something in the back of my mouth.”
As the session ended, Richard added to his story. Hill, he said, “put her hand inside my underpants. Well, I think she put her hand in . . . I’m not sure.” Then he asked to speak with his father. Jordan: “Why do you want to speak to your father, Richard?”
“‘Cause I’m scared.”
Officer Mack’s final note says: “5:06 pm: Interview concluded as Richard appears emotionally drained.”
After the second session, Jordan announced that he wanted a third. Jane Doe called Dr. Anne Brown. “I told her if it was my kid, I’d stop,” says the psychologist. The parents now were deeply torn, but Jordan was insisting that he needed more information, and they interpreted his request as a sign that he planned to seek an indictment. The boy agreed to return; his father admonished the prosecutor to be gentle and try to make it brief.
That interview was on February 2, 1989; there is no account of it in the court records. According to the Does, Richard did not respond well at all. As the session progressed he asked for his father, and when Officer Mack opened the door the child threw himself into his father’s arms, sobbing, “They think I’m lying!”
As Jane Doe comforted the boy, John Doe confronted Dan Jordan. “What are you doing to my kid?” According to Doe, Jordan replied: “This is like the way the Romans trained their soldiers.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“They swung a sword three times heavier than the one they used in battle. Our approach is to make it three times harder than in the trial.”
“What did you get out of this?”
“He can’t give us what we need.”
The Does complained to Jordan’s superiors in the state’s attorney’s mass abuse unit that their son had been mishandled by the interrogation process. The investigation then moved up the departmental ladder to Diane Romza of that unit, who requested a fourth interview with the child. This was February 9, 1989, at Romza’s office with the boy’s mother present. Officer Mack’s record of this two-hour session covers eight and a third tightly packed pages.
Early in the interview Romza asked, as Jordan had ten days before, if Richard knew “what it means to tell the truth.” Now the seven-year-old’s reply was “I don’t know.”
Romza asked about school-yard fights, the lunchtime monitors, the boy’s bruises. Question: “You ever push [the other boys] back?” Answer: “No.” When she asked how many times he had been to the office when Father Lake was there, his time frame collapsed and he answered, “eleven.” But when asked what happened there, his story about the abuse, the photographs, the scrape on Miss Hill’s foot, and the Equalizer trench coat was consistent. As questions rained down about different times he went to the office, few details changed.
Jane Doe was livid when the session ended.
The following week, Romza, a DCFS investigator, and a village police officer met with John and Jane Doe. Jordan by then had interviewed other children at the police station. The authorities’ consensus was that Richard had fabricated the story to please his father, whom he feared and who he knew disliked Lake.
When I asked for an interview, Dan Jordan said he could not speak without approval from Mary Ellen Cagney, head of the state’s attorney’s sexual crimes prosecution division. “He really can’t talk to you on that,” Cagney said. “It’s inappropriate of him to respond to charges of parents who are displeased. The charges were unfounded after a complete and thorough investigation. It’s a civil case being handled through the civil system.”
Why were Jordan’s sessions with the boy not videotaped? “For very good and sound reasons,” said Cagney. “I don’t intend to be interviewed by you. The case was investigated by a number of agencies.”
The last sentence is undoubtedly true. But Cagney’s reply contradicts a March 13, 1990, opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune by directors of the Child Abuse Resource Center at LaRabida Children’s Hospital. In discussing their “Victim Sensitive Interview Projects,” the LaRabida directors identify DCFS, the Chicago Police Department, and the Cook County state’s attorney as joint participants in a program that includes videotaping and more:
“LaRabida provides an interviewer with expertise in child development. The interview is conducted by an experienced person while the other representatives observe through a one-way glass. Afterward the case is discussed and a plan is formulated. Every effort is made to interview the child only once.
Since this project began in 1986, 399 children have been interviewed; 83 percent of the cases required only one interview.
The accomplishments are particularly crucial because we know that repeated questioning of child victims causes trauma and can lead to memory distortion, possibly compromising the prosecution of the case. [Emphasis added.]”
Asked to comment on the procedures generally used by local officials, a DCFS staffer who was not involved in the Doe case confirmed that there is “an ongoing effort to develop victim-sensitive interviews.” When told the details of the Doe investigation this staffer said, “Four interviews is not good by any standard. It defeats the whole purpose of having one good interview and letting it stand. They should have gotten the child to LaRabida and gotten one of the best child development specialists.”
“The policy is the same” everywhere in the county, this source added, “but the cast of characters lends itself to a wide variation in approach. With the quality of [each municipality’s] police department and [the] state’s attorneys they send out, everything takes on a life of its own. You’re looking at an area encompassing three million people, with 300 DCFS workers in child protection. Any number of things can go wrong. . . . Say it’s a mass molestation case: Diane Romza and her team come in, but before it gets to felony review you might have someone from our office, her office, and local police in a conflict over where [abuse] took place. This happens in good faith. A commitment to policy doesn’t mean it always happens that way.”
“They really harassed that kid,” says therapist Anne Brown. “They treated him like a criminal. They attacked him, as much as accused him of lying, didn’t help him speak. If they had done this to a child accused of committing a crime, the child’s attorney would have been all over them for violating his rights. I felt so upset that these professionals behaved in an unconscionable way–after I believed I gave the parents the best consultation, that in doing it by the book truth and justice would prevail–that I now say to parents, do not under any circumstances let police or DCFS talk to your child unless you are present. Carry a tape recorder when you go to the police. If they say no, get an attorney.”
When Richard Doe finally arrived in her office for therapy, says Brown, “The first thing I had to deal with was not the kid’s feelings of what happened with the priest, but what happened with these police and state’s attorney people who had been presented to him as good guys. They just shut him down. . . . For several sessions he was all over the place, bouncing off walls, hiding under pillows, just so confused that I let him play Spider-Man, trying to basically discharge the sense of confusion and being upset. When I’d mention the police his eyes would dilate and the color would literally drain from his face.”
When a police officer on the case called her, she says, “I blasted him. I said nobody in their right mind interrogates a child that way, ganging up on him, insinuating that he’s lying. . . . But that still leaves us with this horrendous problem.
“I am absolutely certain something happened that was sexual, weird, kinky, frightening,” says Brown. “There is no doubt in my mind that this kid was traumatized spiritually, physically, psychologically. There is no doubt in my mind that it happened in school in the context of the relationship with Lake and Hill. Children do not store experiences in a logical sequence. This happens in cases where the law says, unless we can get the child to say on six different occasions that it happened on such-and-such a day, and the kid doesn’t say it consistently, it’s not the truth. Seven-year-olds just don’t think that way. Two kinds of realities clash.”
By June of 1989, with no hope of getting satisfaction from either the criminal justice system or the archdiocese, John Doe had begun casting lines to others who might help him. After a search of news articles on pedophile priests, he called Carl Cannon at the Washington bureau of the San Jose Mercury News, and Cannon arranged for him to get a copy of the 1985 Mouton-Doyle-Peterson report. Peterson was dead; Mouton and Doyle were not returning Doe’s calls. So Doe decided to seek a meeting with Vatican officials. A member of the archconservative Cardinal Mindzenty Foundation referred him to John O’Connor, a Dominican priest who offered to introduce him to Cardinal Edouard Gagnon of the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome. Gagnon and O’Connor were scheduled to participate in a conference of orthodox Catholics in Mitchell, South Dakota. On June 22, the Does and Father O’Connor met Gagnon’s plane at the Sioux Falls airport. The following account is based on interviews with the Does and O’Connor, and on detailed correspondence between Cardinal Gagnon and John Doe.
A balding man who spoke English with a flattened accent of Canadian French, Gagnon stepped off the airplane wearing a yellow straw hat and a gold chain draped across his black shirt. After retrieving the cardinal’s bags the group set forth in the Does’ car, Gagnon and John in the front seat, Jane and O’Connor in the back. John Doe began talking about his son and said he wanted to meet Pope John Paul II. “There is no need for you to go,” said Gagnon. “We already know about the pedophilia problem. It is particularly an American and Canadian problem.”
“You mean to tell me you’ve known about it and haven’t done anything about people who entrust their kids to priests?”
Gagnon replied that Rome had received “hundreds of letters. It is beyond the power of the Holy See to control.”
“They exercise more control over a McDonald’s franchise than you exercise over bishops,” John Doe snapped.
“That is unfair,” said Gagnon. “The church is in a schism. American bishops will not obey the Holy Father where he has sought to intervene. It only makes matters worse.”
Schism means a formal breach of authority within the church. As the word dropped from Gagnon’s lips, years of Catholic-school tutelage made Jane Doe lean forward in her seat: “Pardon me, Cardinal, did you say schism?”
“If we’re in a schism,” said John Doe, “why don’t you tell the laity?”
“They have no right to know,” said Gagnon.
John Doe’s Irish wrath was rising: “I don’t give a damn about altar girls or doctrinal points! I’ve only got one issue: protecting children from their priests!”
“You’re trying to right all the wrongs of this world,” said Gagnon. “You talk about bad priests. What about bad lawyers?”
Doe cited the recent Greylord convictions of Cook County judges and attorneys. “The people who put them in jail are lawyers. We clean up our own mess, not like you priests.”
“Then you should pursue a lawsuit,” said Gagnon.
Jane Doe was amazed: a Vatican cardinal was telling them to file suit against the church. Did he know that meant naming another cardinal, Joseph Bernardin, as a defendant? Whether he knew it or not, still: suing the church was–suing the church.
Gently, Gagnon asked: “Is this your only child?”
“Yes,” said John and Jane simultaneously.
“It’s terrible what happened,” the cardinal brooded. “I am sorry. When I was a boy in Canada, we had ways of dealing with men like this. They must feel the lash. Then they won’t do it.”
Shortly thereafter, John Doe wrote Gagnon in Rome, recounting their exchange, and sent an impassioned, respectful letter to the pope. Gagnon wrote back: “I understand your suffering and your worries and I shall do my best to convince the Holy Father that he should do something urgently.” A papal secretary also replied: “His Holiness . . . would assure you that the contents of your letters have been noted. He invokes God’s blessings on you.”
Blessings or not, the Does decided to take Cardinal Gagnon’s advice and file suit. For their own legal representation they hired Thomas D. Decker, a scholarly attorney whose office on South LaSalle is across the street from the building where Mayer, Brown & Platt has its suites. A former federal defender, Decker melds the grit of a savvy criminal attorney with an intellectual passion for the law. He likes computers, and types away when interviewing prospective witnesses or drafting briefs. In late July 1989, he had the Doe suit ready.
The lawsuit charges that Father Lake “threatened the plaintiff Richard Doe with death or grave bodily injury, and threatened to kill his family members, if he disclosed” the alleged acts. The suit charges that pastor and principal “acting in concert, verbally abused [the boy] and struck and kicked him in the head and body in the office of the [principal] . . . sexually molested the plaintiff Richard Doe by touching and fondling his genitals and other body parts, by touching him with their hands and body parts (including their genitals), by disrobing and photographing him, and by forcing him to look at lewd photographs of naked children.” As a result, the suit continues, the child “has suffered and will continue to suffer from pain, physical ills, suicidal impulses, severe stress and anxiety (manifested by sleeplessness, trauma, nightmares, flashbacks to particularly painful incidents, bed-wetting, and fear) and loss of enjoyment of life.”
The suit further charges that the abuse was “reasonably foreseeable” to Cardinal Bernardin because of the previous legal action brought by Mary Night, the southwest-side principal who had accused Lake of making sexual overtures and physically assaulting her.
In July 1989–before his family’s suit was filed–John Doe called Mayer, Brown & Platt, as a courtesy, to ask if they would accept service of legal papers for the cardinal. Says Doe: “Attorney Bob Finke told me that the suit was worth more to them if we didn’t file it”–suggesting that the archdiocese would pay to keep it out of court, which is not uncommon in sensitive cases involving large, high-profile defendants; once a suit is filed it is fair game for the news media.
In effect, this was the same offer that Serritella had made to Hilary Stiles’s attorney before Christmas of 1983. Only now the stakes were higher than $1,500. According to John Doe, Finke asked if the Does would please meet with him and Serritella before filing suit. The Does replied that they would not discuss a settlement unless the archdiocese agreed to empanel an independent lay board to handle child abuse accusations against priests. The church’s lawyers assured them that the archdiocese had excellent procedures for handling such cases, as they would see if only they’d come to a face-to-face meeting. So with attorney Decker, the Does went to Mayer, Brown’s offices and met with Serritella, Finke, Father Robert Kealy (the archdiocesan chancellor), Bishop Lyne, and another lawyer.
At the meeting, according to John Doe, Serritella maintained that the archdiocese was “on the cutting edge” of the child abuse problem. “We have the finest procedures in the country. The rest of the country looks to Chicago for leadership on this issue.”
Serritella gave the Does copies of archdiocesan policies, stapled typewritten sheets. These, according to Doe, dealt mainly with school personnel, not priests. Serritella said that a known priest-pedophile would be closely supervised. Tom Decker asked how they were supervised, and how many such priests were under supervision, but received no answer. Doe, referring to the policy, said: “I know of cases in this archdiocese where that policy is honored only in the breach.”
Attorney Finke asked for information on such cases. Doe said that Decker would reveal it at the appropriate time.
According to Doe, Finke said “If it comes to litigation, we are hard-nosed lawyers.”
When the lawsuit was filed, the Tribune quoted a village police official saying the charges were determined to be unfounded after an investigation during which more than 40 people were interviewed. “I categorically and totally deny the charges and I regret the embarrassment it has caused the archdiocese,” Father Lake told another paper. “I can tell you that all the allegations are false and they have been investigated extensively,” Miss Hill reportedly said. Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Marie Knoll, the archdiocese’s assistant director of public information, in the Tribune: “We deeply regret that the matter has become the subject of litigation. The matter has now been referred to legal counsel for defense and preparation of appropriate counterclaims.” This statement suggests a preconceived return-strike strategy. Having failed to halt the Does’ suit, Serritella’s firm would bunker in for the fight, with counterclaims of libel and slander as their first salvo. (Whether Mary Dempsey and Patricia Bobb, the attorneys who filed countercharges for pastor and principal respectively, were part of that decision–or were enlisted by Mayer, Brown attorneys to file the countersuit–is unknown. Neither attorney would say how she entered the case or who was paying her fees.)
Although the Does’ case was different from that of Hilary Stiles (whose teenage son was sexually approached once), the church’s legal response was identical: a bare-knuckles corporate defense of ordeal by litigation. Defense strategies of this kind are common in product liability cases and complex personal injury suits. In such cases the defendant typically pays heavy legal fees in order to reduce greater financial exposure. For example, if the defendant is a large industrial firm accused of polluting a community, an aggressive legal defense, though it might cost several million dollars, could save millions more if it resulted in an out-of-court settlement; if the case went to trial and the defendant lost, the decision and the attendant publicity might provoke a flurry of new litigation. A belligerent defense that prolongs litigation can also wear down the plaintiffs, inducing them to settle for a smaller amount rather than wait years for a larger settlement or verdict.
But the Does are uncommon plaintiffs. Unlike Hilary Stiles, they are both wise in the ways of litigation. And they want more than medical expenses and pastoral sympathy: they want reform. Both parents maintain that had church officials agreed to the request they made in July 1989–to empanel an independent board with lay people to monitor abuse accusations against clergy–their case never would have been filed and the financial dispute could have been resolved for a fraction of what they are now seeking. But when the Does encountered a wall of lawyers and a victim-response policy they felt was deeply inadequate, they committed themselves to legal action.
After the suit was filed, Father Thomas Doyle answered the messages John Doe had left for him at the military vicariate in Silver Spring, Maryland. The canon lawyer listened carefully as Doe related the chain of events. Doyle remembered Serritella from his appearance at the 1986 conference on priest pedophilia in River Forest. When Doe was done, Doyle apologized on behalf of the Catholic church for what had happened to the boy and the family. He questioned Doe further about the way the archdiocese had handled the case. When Doe asked if he would consider being a witness in their behalf, Doyle did not commit himself on the spot, but offered to meet him in Chicago.
On October 11, 1989, attorneys Decker and Doe took Father Doyle to lunch at the Attic Club, a luncheon club in the LaSalle Bank building, where Decker’s office is located. As they discussed the case, Doe noticed the figure of a large man at the other end of the room, staring at them. It was Jim Serritella. The next day, by messenger, Serritella sent a letter to Decker:
“Please be advised that it is our position that all priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago are representatives of our client, the Archdiocese. Accordingly, you should direct any and all communications to them through our office. . . . As a result of the foregoing, I ask that you identify the priest and the contents of the conversation involving the case.”
A bemused Decker wrote back, explaining that he and his client had not spoken “with an Archdiocesan priest on the day you mention.” (Doyle does not work in the archdiocese.) Decker continued:
“[M]y clients and their son are practicing Catholics and, without notice to you, plan to continue associations with priests in the observation of their faith.
“In regard to contacts with priests about violations of the criminal law, which is a context in which we may wish to confer, a priest is free to decline to speak with me or my representatives and I would honor the written expression by any priests of such a desire. I know of no principle, however, that I may be restricted in speaking with anyone about crimes that may have occurred. If you have authority for your position, however, please let me know.”
Serritella did not reply. But shortly after this incident, in a speech to 400 parochial school teachers on the south side, he elaborated on the church’s policy regarding allegations of child abuse. According to people who attended the gathering, he said: “Don’t touch a kid for any reason.” What if a child falls down? a teacher asked: can’t we reach out? “No.” They asked about children with learning disabilities, who often have special problems. Serritella reportedly replied that if a company cannot service its customers, it goes out of business. A school should not accept students who need services it cannot provide. Someone mentioned a diabetic child whose mother gave the teacher hard candy and 7-Up in case of an attack. According to the sources, Serritella said that the principal should not have allowed the student to enroll. Referring to an unnamed suburban teacher who had been accused of sex abuse, he said archdiocesan policy was automatic suspension without pay. The audience groaned. Someone asked if the archdiocese provided legal support. There was no guarantee, Serritella reportedly said, adding that if the accused was acquitted, he or she would be reinstated with back pay. Suppose such a case took five years? “You’re out of work,” he reportedly replied.
By spring of 1990, Tom Decker wanted to question Cardinal Bernardin. The libel counterclaims hung in abeyance. After Decker served a notice of deposition for Bernardin, the defense asked that it be postponed because of demands on the cardinal due to the closing of Catholic schools. The Does consented. Subsequently the defense secured a stay order, halting the depositions of Bernardin and other priests until motions to dismiss the case were decided. Judge Lerner eventually denied those motions to dismiss, opening the way for pretrial depositions.
Entwined within these developments was a defense request to take the boy’s deposition. The child was spending the summer with one of his grandmothers at the family’s rural cottage, with the parents joining them on weekends until their own vacation. The Does agreed to have the boy deposed in Chicago on a mutually convenient Friday–but summer ended with no date set.
Meanwhile, the church’s child abuse scandal was exploding in Canada. Two dozen young men who grew up at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Saint John’s, Newfoundland, accused nine Christian Brothers of systematically molesting and beating them. A government inquiry into the charges held televised hearings last year, which became a continuing national news story in Canada. In addition, in July 1990 the Archdiocese of Saint John’s published a 700-page report on other child sexual abuse cases involving six priests. That inquiry, commissioned by Saint John’s Archbishop Alphonsus Penney, accused Penney and his predecessor of ignoring victims and recycling abusive priests over a period of 15 years. The investigators’ three-volume report described the spreading influence of homosexuality in the clerical life of a chilly island province. It noted that a number of priests refused to send boys to a particular altar boy function because “homosexuals . . . were holding the jamboree. Several priests told the Commission they would not send anybody to the jamborees. . . . Events during the early years of [Penney’s] tenure signalled the possibility of homosexual activity by priests. . . . Yet both subsequently convicted and alleged offenders were known to be constantly in the company of adolescent males.”
Archbishop Penney resigned in shame after the report was released. “We are a sinful church,” he said in a prepared statement. “The wounds of the church have been laid bare. We are naked. Our anger, our pain, our anguish, our shame are clear to the whole world.”
The “Report of the Archdiocesan Commission of Enquiry Into the Sexual Abuse of Children by Members of the Clergy” was a graphic demonstration of how little influence lay people exert in the church. The church “showed little compassion toward the victims. Church officials aligned themselves with the accused,” the report concluded. It recommended 55 specific remedies, including:
“That the Archdiocesan Church formally acknowledge its share of guilt and responsibility, and that the Archdiocesan Administration apologize in such a way as to remove any suggestion that the victims were to blame . . . [and] provide reasonable monetary compensation to the victims; that the Archdiocese establish immediately, and fund, a Victims Advocacy Board; that the Board be composed of knowledgeable and concerned members of the community, operating at arm’s length from Church administration . . . appropriately staffed to administer requests for assistance, to complete assessment and referrals, and to facilitate the delivery of therapeutic and rehabilitative services to victims and families.”
The report also recommended “that a pastoral response not be overshadowed by concerns for legal liabilities.”
The victims’ advocacy board that the Canadian report recommended is similar to what the Does asked the Chicago archdiocese to establish a year earlier. But the archdiocese maintains that its procedures are adequate. Sister Joy Clough says: “Our consultants are all lay and not all are Catholic. It’s not as if all this is happening behind the Roman collar.”
On November 9, Father Raymond Goedert, vicar of priests, told WMAQ TV reporter Mary Ann Ahern, who asked about the idea of an independent lay board: “It could be they would have insights that haven’t occurred to us, and also it would make people sure that we do handle the cases properly.”
On their face the vicar’s comments seemed to suggest room for compromise in the Doe lawsuit. But as he gave that interview, a bizarre turn in the case was drawing Father Goedert into the murky matters of a black south-side parish where Barbara Hill had been stationed years earlier, when she was a nun. What follows is based on documents filed in the court record and subsequently removed by order of Judge Lerner.
Peter Nelson*, a 23-year-old black man, was a former student at this parish–call it Saint Garfield’s–when the principal accused in the Doe suit was working there. In 1989, a private investigator working for the Does, Richard O’Brien, was seeking information on Hill’s tenure there. A former Chicago police officer who now specializes in criminal investigations, O’Brien is also a licensed polygraph expert and lectures on lie detector testing to criminal justice groups. (He subjected Richard Doe to a polygraph exam and concluded that the boy was “substantially telling the truth” in claiming to have been abused by Lake and Hill.)
On June 9, 1989, O’Brien met Nelson as he was coming out of the Saint Garfield’s rectory, where he said he worked. O’Brien and Nelson spoke briefly in the crowded church parking lot “with people milling about trying to overhear,” O’Brien reported. They agreed to meet several days later for lunch. Nelson failed to show. Unable to find him, O’Brien asked Sidney Shariff, a black private investigator and former Chicago police officer, for help.
On January 12, 1990, Shariff brought Nelson to the House of Bing, a south-side restaurant, where the three men had dinner. The circumstances surrounding that dinner are now a matter of dispute.
According to affidavits filed by Shariff and O’Brien, Nelson said that after graduating from Saint Garfield’s grade school he entered a high school seminary in another state “where he was sexually molested by the priest who encouraged him to enroll there.” O’Brien’s statement continues:
“He left the seminary in about 1982 when he was 15. He began a sexual relationship with [a priest at] St. Garfield’s, Father ‘Jackson,’ which lasted eight years. . . . [‘Jackson’ is not the priest’s true name, but the pseudonym used in the court records.] Nelson also established residence in the rectory of St. Garfield’s Church, where he lived with about four other young men.
“He has received numerous gifts from Father ‘Jackson,’ including money, a stereo set, radios, clothing, and other objects. Nelson received a regular stipend from the priest for performing odd tasks in or about the church and rectory.
“Nelson said he was adopted by Father ‘Jackson,’ and that he had one brother, a student, who also had resided in the rectory, and six sisters who did not.”
Nelson also described experiences he’d had with Barbara Hill, the principal now accused of abusing Richard Doe; he repeated his story under oath to a court reporter in John Doe’s office on October 1. But during the ten months between the dinner with the two investigators and his statement in John Doe’s office, Nelson proved hard to find. During that time Saint Garfield’s was one of the inner-city parishes that closed in the archdiocesan financial retrenchment. When O’Brien finally did locate him at another black parish on October 1, Nelson accompanied him to Doe’s office downtown. With a tape recorder running, they headed along the Dan Ryan Expressway. According to O’Brien’s affidavit, Nelson repeated the story he had given in Shariff’s presence at the restaurant in January. In Doe’s office, the interview continued with Doe asking questions. A court reporter arrived, and Nelson answered questions for the legal record.
He stated that he worked at a cable TV company as a customer service operator. When Doe asked about Barbara Hill, Nelson said that, as a boy, he was alone in her office at Saint Garfield’s School.
“She used to take down my pants and she used to tell me she was going to check my underwear. You know, she never stated for what reason, you know, she just did. . . . She just kept pulling them away from my body, popping my, you know, the band on my underpants . . .
Doe: Is there any reason why you didn’t report it?
Nelson: Basically, back then, in the community I grew up in was all black and it was all poverty. We just–our parents just taught us we trust in the priest and the nuns. So whatever they did, we just assumed it was right . . .
She felt that no one was above her authority. Well, if it was challenged, or if it wasn’t done the way she wanted it to be done, she would have violent reactions, you know. She would throw a tantrum, she would grab children, shake them, push them, sling them across the room, it didn’t matter.”
Nelson repeated the story of his sexual involvement with Father “Jackson.” He also named six other boys who lived in the rectory and said “I heard accusations” about the priest’s sexual activity with them. “A few of the–even guys that were not living there, you know, I heard those accusations.” He said he moved out of “Jackson’s” new rectory in summer 1990.
On October 18, 1990, attorney Tom Decker gave the church lawyers a transcript of Nelson’s statement to Doe, and copies of O’Brien’s interview cassettes. At issue was not the alleged pederasty of Father “Jackson” but Nelson’s remarks about Barbara Hill. Decker did not enter Nelson’s statement in the legal record. That was done December 3 by attorney Bettina Getz of Mayer, Brown, in a motion that asked the court to keep the plaintiffs from questioning church employees and to impose punitive legal sanctions on John Doe for “contacts [with] an opposing party without permission from that party’s counsel . . . harassment in its worst form.”
A key element of this defense motion was strangely reminiscent of a tactic Serritella’s old law firm had used in 1984 in the case filed by Hilary Stiles. In that case the plaintiff’s attorney, Nancy Kaszak, interviewed a boy at a restaurant about the accused priest’s conduct. Though Kaszak did not file a resulting affidavit, Serritella’s team introduced a second affidavit hinting that Kaszak had plied the reluctant teen by means of “cocktails” and titillating talk. This second affidavit was found “not authentic” by the judge and was thrown out of the case file.
Similarly, the defense motion in the Doe case states that upon receiving Peter Nelson’s transcript and interview tapes from attorney Decker, “the defendant [that is, the archdiocese] initiated an investigation of the accusations made by Mr. Nelson, consistent with its internal policies to investigate charges of alleged abuse.” The motion, filed by attorney Bettina Getz, gives no details of the investigation or of the defendant’s “internal policies.” Instead it cites a new sworn statement given by Peter Nelson–his second under oath–totally contradicting what he told Shariff, O’Brien, and Doe, and accusing O’Brien of having offered him a $10,000 bribe. This statement was given to Ms. Getz and Father Goedert, vicar for clergy, in Mayer, Brown offices on October 26–eight days after Decker turned over the information. Nelson gave yet a third statement in early November, buttressing his second one for the defense. Again the church attorneys had launched a preemptive strike, attacking the conduct of the plaintiffs and impugning an affidavit that had not even been entered as evidence. It was confirmation, if the plaintiffs needed any, that hard legal battle was under way.
From the October 26 statement:
[Getz]: And you realize you are under oath to tell the truth, correct?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: You are here of your own free will?
A: Yes I am.
Nelson stated that he had never met Goedert or Getz before. To Getz’s question about Barbara Hill, he denied everything he had told John Doe. He also denied that Father “Jackson” had ever molested him, and that several young men named by Getz–a list taken from Nelson’s previous statement to Doe–had ever to his knowledge been molested by the priest.
Q: You are telling me different things today than you told Mr. Doe in your statement?
Q: Did you lie when you gave that statement?
A: Yes I did lie.
Q: Why did you lie?
A: I was promised $10,000 by Richard T. O’Brien . . .
The bribe, Nelson continued, was offered at the Chinese restaurant with Shariff–who, Nelson says, “went away for about a half an hour.”
Later in the transcript, Nelson states:
When Father Jackson called me and it devastated me because he said, “Peter,” he said, you know, “why would you say these things about me? What are you trying to do to me?”
And I–it just–I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t expect that, you know.
Q: Did Father Jackson threaten you at all?
A: No, no. He was devastated and, you know, and to this day I must say I don’t know how I can ever–to make something like that right, but that was not something that I went out to do. To lie on Father Jackson was not the arrangement. I don’t know where that came from, but I was just so worn out at the time, you know, I just wanted to say what they wanted me to say and get the money and he said this would–nobody would ever see this. That’s what–
Q: Who said that?
A: Mr. Doe.
Getz then asks: “Let me back up a moment. When was the first time you talked with Mr. Doe on the telephone after October 1st?”
Nelson then addresses himself to Father Goedert, saying: “When was your meeting with Father Jackson? Monday, Father?”
Goedert answers: “Tuesday.”
What does that mean?
Goedert’s meeting with Father “Jackson” was, presumably, part of the church’s “internal investigation.” Why would Nelson have known that Goedert spoke with Father “Jackson”–unless Goedert or (much more likely) “Jackson” told him? How extensive was Goedert’s investigation of this priest, who according to Nelson’s original statement had had sex with six other young rectory visitors? The church had supposedly known of these charges for only eight days. Finally, the most bizarre aspect of Nelson’s recantation is that sexual allegations against his priest friend, “Jackson,” had no bearing on the Doe lawsuit until Nelson himself brought them up. Doe and O’Brien had been seeking information on Barbara Hill.
Getz’s motion for the defense was filed December 3. On December 20, Decker responded with a massive document that includes the transcript of the O’Brien interview with Nelson–in which the names of two more priests, one of them a church official, are blotted out because Nelson also accused them of molesting youngsters. Like Father “Jackson,” they have not been criminally charged.
In Getz’s motion for the church Nelson claims that O’Brien coached him in the preliminary interview en route to Doe’s office on October 1, continually rewinding the tape cassette as they drove and talked. Decker’s answering motion produces receipts from the drugstore where O’Brien bought the tapes and the downtown lot where he parked with Nelson before heading to Doe’s office. An eight-page report by owners of a Chicago studio with digital recording technology states that the cassette ran continuously. Decker writes that Nelson “made his allegation about [Father “Jackson”] one minute and 31 seconds into the conversation and before the alleged ‘rehearsals’ occurred . . .”
“There could have been no ‘rehearsals’ because the number of subjects and persons on whom Nelson’s remarks touched on October 1st was so large that days or weeks would have been required to force-feed the witness, not the short period Nelson spent with O’Brien, then Doe. . . .
“The linchpin of the argument is that the plaintiff’s investigator coached Nelson in a car, in a parking lot, and in Doe’s office . . . and then tape-recorded the revisionist product of this corrupt collaboration. Such coaching, however, was impossible because the passage of time on October 1st was recorded and otherwise established, which left no time for such perjurious preparations.
“If Mr. Nelson had a glimmer of malevolent wit, he might have testified in his Recantation Statement to a series of meetings before October 1st–in cemeteries and the like–at which his lines were fed to him by the investigator. But a skillful liar, an auteur, he is not.”
In her motion, church attorney Getz ups the ante in the case by asking Judge Lerner for sanctions against Doe, including charges of contempt of court. The request for sanctions is sometimes used tactically in high-stakes cases to put pressure on the opposition. In his response to the request, Decker points out that it is made on somewhat flimsy grounds, a shaky man’s conflicting statements made under oath, which the church’s attorneys then made no attempt to reconcile or substantiate:
“The depositions of the plaintiff John Doe and the investigators [Shariff, O’Brien] were not taken. . . . Business records were not requested or subpoenaed. And . . . the contents of the differing statements made by Nelson, and their meaning, certainly were not analyzed by the defendant.”
Decker asked the court to hold Nelson in contempt for giving false statements and requested that the defense reimburse costs borne by the Does in his preparation of the countermotion. Judge Lerner has asked the state’s attorney to investigate the matter, to determine whether any parties should be indicted for criminal contempt. This is an ironic by-product of the defense’s legal brinkmanship: by taking Nelson at his word, the church’s lawyers have opened their own attack on Doe and O’Brien to scrutiny by prosecutors.
It seems reasonable to ask at this point what Serritella’s defense has gained for the church by such legal tactics. True, the church has surrendered no money to the Does, but as the case drags on the court record grows to include unsavory information about more and more priests. Father Thomas Doyle’s deposition was taken by the defense last February 18; in it, he named two more Chicago-area priests who had been accused of child molesting but not prosecuted, and a third who was sentenced to four years’ probation in 1986 for molesting a 14-year-old boy at Maryville Academy.
In his deposition, Doyle stated that he had no direct knowledge of Joseph Lake or Barbara Hill and thus “couldn’t reach an opinion” about the Does’ specific accusations. Rather, he discussed the archdiocese’s policy for dealing with child abuse cases. Under questioning by Bettina Getz he recounted a conversation he had in 1985 with archdiocesan chancellor Father Robert Kealy.
“He asked if I had developed information or anything about these issues, that they had nothing here but were talking about doing something, and I said as a matter of fact, yes . . . and I remember sending him not the entire manual [the report Doyle had written with Mouton and Peterson] but big chunks of the manual, and I wrote him a lengthy letter and offered to assist in any way I could. Shortly thereafter, I received a response from Father Kealy acknowledging the receipt of the information and indicating he would get back to me.”
Doyle said he saw Kealy five years later at a wake; no one had contacted him in the meantime about the child abuse problem. Today, he said, the archdiocese’s procedures “appear to be adequate. But there is a big difference between procedures and the way they are applied.” The procedures he was referring to were those promulgated in early 1990 by Father Goedert–after the Does filed their suit.
“Q: Did you make any independent investigation as to what policies and procedures were in place in the Chicago Archdiocese in 1989?
A: Yes . . . I asked another priest who is a member of my same order who works in the Archdiocese as vice-chancellor if he was aware of any policies and procedures used by the Archdiocese in a uniform fashion when allegations of sexual abuse of clergy were made, and he replied in the negative.”
The priest was David Hynous–“a canon lawyer like myself.” Doyle said that he also spoke with other Dominicans and with an Air Force Reserve chaplain, none of whom knew of any such policy. Doyle recalled a conversation with Hynous in 1987. “[He] said that when something like that comes down they close ranks at the top. . . . I was given to understand, and this was an opinion, that anything that was handled was handled secrectly at the top.”
Church attorney Getz asked if Doyle had any other basis for his opinion that the archdiocese’s policy was inadequate. Doyle said: “I knew for a fact that there were certain priests who had been accused who remained in place with no evaluations having taken place or to my knowledge no investigation.”
He named the priest accused in the Stiles lawsuit, and said, “I began hearing stories about him in the late 70s when I was working down at the chancery.” Getz continued:
“Do you know how these accusations of child abuse were handled internally by the Chicago Archdiocese?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: Tell me what you know.
A: I know that the then chancellor and Vicar General, J. Richard Keating, conducted the investigation.
Q: How do you know that?
A: He told me.
Q: What else did he tell you?
A: That they thought that the only thing parents were interested in was money . . .
Q: [I]s it your opinion that that investigation was handled improperly?
A: There seemed to be a lot of evidence that there had been misconduct on the part of this priest, a lot of stories, a lot of talk.
A: On an ongoing basis. He had a reputation, a widespread reputation among the Diocesan priests, and as I said, he was transferred from one parish to another.”
Asked about other priests so accused, Doyle said that in 1985, “I was still working at the Vatican embassy [and] was approached by another Dominican priest who was then the chaplain of Fenwick High School.” A freshman had confided to the chaplain “that he was being sexually abused by a priest at [a parish] . . . and the young man told him there were other young men involved, and the boy wanted to get out.”
Doyle stated that he told the chaplain to report the information to Cardinal Bernardin, and the priest later “expressed serious dissatisfaction with the way this was handled.”
Doyle also recounted the 1986 conference he organized to discuss pedophilia cases at the Dominican Priory in River Forest. The late Richard Issel, psychological consultant to the archdiocese, “did tell me he thought it was very, very unfortunate that there was not anything concrete being done with accusations of this type in the Archdiocese of Chicago. . . . Dr. Issel mentioned that the word had been put out by the cardinal that he did not want anybody attending.” This was just after Doyle had been quoted in the New York Times on the subject. Bernardin apparently feared news coverage even though the River Forest conference was closed.
Asked if he had any other basis to doubt that the archdiocese had a policy at that time, Doyle answered: “The presentation that was given by Mr. Serritella. . . . I think if we [had] let this guy on first, he would have destroyed everything we are trying to do.”
“Do you have any other bases for your opinion that the policies and procedures in the Chicago Archdiocese were inadequate from 1984 to 1990?” Getz asked. Doyle said yes, the way in which the Doe case had been handled–letters delivered to Bernardin, “with no response [and] the fact that the individual involved, the accused person or persons were left in place and not sent away for an evaluation . . .”
“I have consistently advised ecclesiastical people, when you are dealing with something like this that is emotional and explosive, one thing of primary importance is that there be a sensitive pastoral intervention with the parents of any child who is supposedly involved in sexual abuse of children. In asking what kind of pastoral assistance the Does received, I believe it was woefully inadequate and nonexistent . . .
“[And] when you start an investigation, we have advised church authorities to keep in touch with the families and inform them as to . . . what steps are being followed, and not simply to state we have investigated the incident and found nothing there.
“I’m sure you can appreciate the reason for that kind of advice. Because in the past there have been and continue to be documented incidences of cover-ups, stonewalling, things of this sort . . .”
Getz circled back to Doyle’s early conversations with Doe.
“Q: When Mr. Doe asked you about this lay board in this telephone conversation, what was your response?
A: Well, I said I think it’s a good idea . . .
Q: Is it necessary to have some lay members on the board in order for the policies and procedures to be effective?
A: I believe that it would be most effective if it was a majority of lay persons.”
Getz asked if Doyle’s opinion of the Doe case would change were he to learn that the pastor “was removed from all contacts with children until the matter had been investigated” by the police, the state’s attorney, and DCFS. “No,” said Doyle. The priest should “submit himself to extensive clinical evaluation. . . . I would want to know the tests that were applied, I would want to know how long it took, and have some ballpark understanding of the outcome and not simply someone from the chancery to say we sent him away and everything came out clean.”
Getz bore down with her line of questioning.
“If I told you that a full psychiatric and physical exam was made of an accused priest in this case, and I also told you that he had been removed from contacts with children until after an investigation was conducted, which concluded that he didn’t do it, and if you were happy, assuming for purposes of argument with the nature of that investigation, would that change your opinion?
A: If I saw objective documentation on the nature of the investigation, how it was conducted, what the evaluation was, how it was conducted, where it was conducted, by whom it was conducted.”
As the Does’ case approaches the end of its second year in the courts, the deposition process–pretrial questioning, under oath–points toward two crucial witnesses: Cardinal Bernardin and Richard Doe, now ten. Between them lies the bitter chasm of this dispute. Meanwhile, church attorneys are moving forward with a three-pronged defense–stall for time; counterattack; and preserve the policy by which the archdiocese handles accusations of clergy child abuse. Whatever that policy may be, it appears to be symmetrical with Jim Serritella and his colleagues’ legal strategy, a strange entwining of secular and pastoral values.
The libel counterclaims, like the demand for sanctions against Doe and O’Brien, are gladiatorial tactics that set the church against its own members. And the request for sanctions only ended up drawing more attention to the case. With the archdiocese $25 million in debt, just how much the church has paid to keep suits like the Does’ out of court has become a topic of considerable talk among Catholic attorneys in Chicago. An April 7 Andrew Greeley column in the Sun-Times raised the question in the context of the archdiocese’s upcoming Mother’s Day appeal for funds.
“Questions should be answered about the archdiocese’s legal fees and settlements to pay for the perverted sexual amusements of a few priests. . . . Catholic laity will have reason to wonder how much of the $10 million they are being asked to contribute will go into the coffers of big law firms and how much to the victims of clergy who are then reassigned to other parishes where they can run up more bills for the Catholic Church.”
In an apparent reference to the Doe case in particular, Greeley continued:
“One hears rumors on the street of million dollar settlements, of quarter-million dollar legal bills for pending suits, of attempts by the cardinal to pressure Cook County State’s Attorney Jack O’Malley to indict a protesting parent on what seem to be trumped-up charges. Are any of these rumors true? Who knows? Unless the archdiocese changes its policy and tells the truth, even about legal fees and suit settlements, there is no reason to believe anything it says.”
Father Doyle’s testimony against the archdiocese that once employed him echoes Greeley’s comments, though in a more muted tone. Before agreeing to be a witness for the plaintiff, Doyle stated, he did his own background check on John Doe. “I want to make sure I’m not getting tangled up with a wacko, and the information I received was no, he is a reputable attorney and a very good Catholic, south-side Irish. That was the clincher for me, and this is standard procedure that I would follow in any instance of this nature.”
In an interview, Jane Doe offered a different slant on the events that have jolted her family. “I’m horribly disappointed at having gone up the ladder, starting with our Christian community school board, to the archdiocese, Bishop Lyne, on to Cardinal Gagnon, and further appealing to Rome. Then we get a letter that the pope is aware of our concern. The church of Rome is either saying to the American church, handle this yourself, or it is denying the problem and saying we’re not going to care for these children. Jesus knew that throughout time there would be people who would follow him and deny him. We follow Christ and don’t deny him. This is our test, and this is our time.”
* Sevral names in this article have been changed, including Barbara Hill, Joseph Lake, Mary Night, Kenneth Mack, peter Nelson, Robert White, and Saint Garfield’s. Most are indicated by an asterisk (*) on first apprearance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.