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Jailed Illinois Priest Could Be Refused Release

Law used for 1st time against a clergyman

By Charles Sheehan, Chicago Tribune staff reporter
April 10, 2006

The state will try to block the release Monday of a Roman Catholic priest convicted of sexually abusing three boys at a Hinsdale church--the first time Illinois authorities have tried to hold a clergyman with a law allowing them to commit indefinitely a sex offender to a mental treatment facility, according to the attorney general's office.

Rev. Frederick A. Lenczycki, 61, pleaded guilty in January 2004 to aggravated sexual abuse of three boys, though prosecutors said they believe he molested three times that many children. Lenczycki is scheduled to be paroled this week, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Under the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act, the state can force a sex offender to stay in a mental treatment facility if it can prove that another sex crime is probable should the inmate be allowed to go free.

The Illinois attorney general's office filed a petition on Friday to put Lenczycki in the Joliet Treatment and Detention Facility, and an assistant attorney general plans to bring the case before a DuPage County Circuit Court judge Monday morning.

"The Sexually Violent Persons program was designed to keep people off the street who shouldn't be there," said Melissa Merz, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

A very high legal bar was set for prosecutors to meet, however, and there are relatively few sexual offenders who fall under the auspices of the act. The state must prove there is a substantial likelihood the offender will engage in future acts of sexual violence if released without additional treatment.

In the seven years since the law took effect, the state has tried to apply it in 260 cases. The law has never been applied to a clergyman, according to the attorney general's office. The state has about 20,000 sex offenders.

130 inmates committed

Half of the 260 former inmates have been fully committed as sexually violent persons. The other half are fighting the classification in what can be an extremely litigious process because it is a civil, not a criminal case. The burden of proving that a future crime is probable falls upon the state.

Although the Sexually Violent Persons program is administered by the attorney general, it is pursued in partnership with the prosecutor who initially handled the case.

The prosecutor who convicted Lenczycki was DuPage County State's Atty. Joe Birkett.

"I know how heavy the burden of proof is because I helped write the act with [former Atty. Gen.] Jim Ryan," said Birkett, who is also the Republican Party's candidate for lieutenant governor. "It's not an easy task, and we have to prove it in a courtroom. But the evidence shows he continues to be a danger to the community."

A state evaluator who specializes in sexual behavior found that Lenczycki is a pedophile who is driven to have sex with non-consenting males, Birkett said. The evaluator "believes Lenczycki continues to be a sexually violent person and is recommending that he be subject to civil commitment," Birkett said.

Attorney Vincent Cornelius, who represented Lenczycki when he pleaded guilty in 2004, did not return calls for comment from the Tribune.

Lenczycki pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three boys, ages 10 to 12, while serving at St. Isaac Jogues Church in Hinsdale from 1982 to 1984.

Birkett clashed repeatedly with Bishop Joseph Imesch of the diocese of Joliet, alleging that he knew Lenczycki was abusing children and helped him to avoid prosecution.

Attorneys for the priest fought state charges of sexual abuse, arguing the statute of limitations had expired. But a judge ruled that the statute did not apply because prosecutors had no chance to pursue charges against Lenczycki while he was out of state.

He spent time in a treatment center in California and was assigned to parishes in California and Missouri through the mid-1980s and 1990s. Lenczycki was indicted in 2002 and pleaded guilty two years later.

The prosecution of Lenczycki led to a public disagreement between Imesch and Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Dalton of St. Louis, who said he was never told of allegations of sexual abuse by Lenczycki.

Imesch has come under fire again recently for not removing priests from service despite allegations of sexual abuse.

Offender still a priest

Imesch has yet to decide to ask the Vatican if Lenczycki should no longer be considered part of the priesthood, though he would never be allowed to live on church property, said diocese spokesman Thomas Kerber.

The diocese would be obligated to help Lenczycki but only with minor assistance such as finding another place to live, he said.

"According to canon law, it is the responsibility of the bishop to provide for the support of a priest who is no longer able to be in active ministry," Kerber said.

"Consequently, there must be some financial support given to Fred Lenczycki by the diocese until such time as he is able to provide for himself."

That would not likely include legal assistance, he said.

Fifteen states have laws for offenders similar to the Illinois Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act. In Illinois, the Department of Corrections evaluates inmates to whom the law may apply about 90 days before release, using psychological exams.

The vast majority of inmates who are evaluated are found to be ineligible for commitment after their sentences end.

Those deemed eligible to be committed under the act can have an outside psychological evaluation done before a civil trial begins, a trial that can include a jury.

Anyone deemed to be a sexually violent person can be held indefinitely, until a judge finds they are no longer a danger to the public, according to the state law.

Lenczycki is scheduled to appear at 10 a.m. Monday before Circuit Judge Edward R. Duncan in the DuPage County Courthouse.

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csheehan@tribune.com

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune


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