APNewsBreak: Priest who abused child still working with kids

By Michael Tarm, July 11, 2017, Washington Post

CHICAGO — The Claretians Roman Catholic order has settled a lawsuit from a man sexually abused as a 6-year-old by a teenager who later became a prominent priest in Chicago, confirming in the settlement obtained by The Associated Press that the longtime cleric recently left the priesthood.

But Bruce Wellems, 60, still works as executive director of a non-profit that offers youth mentoring, alternative schooling and other programs for children, according to a staff list at the Peace and Education Coalition. Its head office is also located in the same southwest side Chicago church where he served as priest for two decades.

The settlement was signed in May and not released publicly. It does not say exactly when Wellems asked to be released from the priesthood but it would have been since the lawsuit was filed in September.

The Chicago-based Claretians did not agree to one request of the now 52-year-old victim, Eric Johnson, that the order release records of all its priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, as several other Catholic orders have done.

While Johnson, a father of three children employed in the financial sector, told The AP he’s disappointed the Claretians refused to open their records to scrutiny, he said his main objective in filing the suit in Cook County Circuit Court in September was achieved: To reveal the abuse by Wellems and ensure he left the priesthood.

He said the abuse began in 1973 when he was 6 and just weeks before Wellems turned 15 when they lived in the same neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Johnson says he was abused more than a dozen times over a year. Wellems would sometimes ask for sex acts if he defeated Johnson in basketball-shooting contests, he said.

What Wellems did, he says, “haunted me most of my life.”

Wellems didn’t respond to recent messages seeking comment. But he admitted to the AP in emails and an interview in 2014 as the AP began researching the case that he had inappropriately touched Johnson and he described it as “abuse.” He said it happened twice. And he said he never again abused a child, and never as an adult or priest.

The statute of limitations on any criminal charges expired years ago.

Wellems said he was burdened by the shame of what he’d done and it was one reason he devoted his career to helping children.

“I never thought it was right,” he said. “I don’t think it’s me. The only urges I have experienced about children is revulsion at the thought of hurting anyone else.”

The 168-year-old Claretian order, which has more than 3,000 priests and brothers worldwide, has traditionally put an emphasis on helping the poor, immigrants and the young.

In the copy of the settlement provided to the AP by Johnson, the Claretians also agreed to pay him $25,000, a relatively small sum for a child-abuse case. The Claretians don’t admit to any wrongdoing. Claretian attorney Richard Leamy Jr. said Tuesday: “As the matter has been resolved, we have no further comment.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago said it wasn’t a party to the suit and added only that, “We refer any questions about religious order personnel to the religious order.”

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