Troubled Chicago priest lands in spotlight
Case illustrates church's challenges
By James Janega - Tribune staff reporter
February 1, 2004
As the disgraced leader of a South Side Catholic parish left
town recovering from a heart condition and a public row with
Cardinal Francis George, national church abuse investigators
said they would look into the priest's apparent defiance of
George over the last year.
Banned from living in his parish since 2002, Rev. John Calicott
has frequently slept there, nevertheless.
Calicott has drawn increasing attention and irritation among
advocates for priests' rights and for victims' rights, as
well as the U.S. Catholic Church's apparatus for addressing
Few cases illustrate certain challenges faced by the Catholic
Church as much as Calicott's.
Removed and reinstated under one set of rules in the mid-1990s,
he was suspended again after the bishops' Dallas convention
in 2002. His case is now under appeal in Rome, and his parish,
Holy Angels Church on Chicago's South Side, is in turmoil.
Beyond the continuing questions of sexual abuse and how to
handle it, dealing with Calicott, a popular black pastor in
one of the few thriving black parishes in Chicago, has exposed
issues that lately have dogged the church in America and the
Chicago archdiocese in particular:
How to reach out to African-Americans? And how to preach
forgiveness under a strict new policy of zero tolerance for
Complicating those notions is the convoluted history of how
Calicott's case has been handled in Chicago.
"It's being looked at because it represents something
of what has been happening in other cases as well," said
Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of
Priests' Councils. "It demonstrates the whole confused
way that the policy is being carried out and the confusing
problems it has for the priest, for the community, and everyone."
But the case has grown more complicated in recent weeks.
"Cardinal George told him he could not be there in ministry.
And he's there. Sleeps there a couple times a week. Speaks
to children. Is there every Sunday at mass. That's in clear
violation of the charter. Does the cardinal know about it?
Who's enforcing this here? Where's the enforcement?"
said Illinois Appellate Judge Anne M. Burke, interim chairwoman
of the National Review Board of lay people monitoring the
response of Catholic bishops to the crisis.
"This is one that certainly needs to be sorted out,"
said Sheila Horan, deputy director of the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops Office of Child and Youth Protection.
"It is my intention to call the diocese and inquire as
to the details."
Calicott, George agree
In a relationship that has sometimes been adversarial, sometimes
supportive, Calicott and George have taken similar stances
on abuse issues. They both called for leniency and forgiveness
after Catholic bishops in Dallas in 2002 demanded the blanket
removal of priests found to have committed sexual abuse.
But they have been at odds over how to carry on while the
Vatican decides how to sort out the few priests who will perhaps
be allowed to remain in ministry.
Meanwhile, parishioners at Holy Angels have rallied around
Calicott, and in the 19 months since George ordered Calicott
to leave Holy Angels until his appeal could be concluded,
Calicott has spent up to three nights a week in the church
The quiet standoff exploded last month when it was revealed
Calicott, forbidden to preach or wear clerical garb, had last
December addressed pupils at Holy Angels' parochial school.
A beloved pastor at a church where 500 families worship,
Calicott has built on the work of Holy Angels' former leader,
the charismatic Rev. George Clements. The school is among
the largest in Chicago, and the parish has instilled a sense
of pride in the impoverished Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood.
"We only have something in the neighborhood of 250 African-American
priests in a country with a long history of racism and a church
which historically has difficulty reaching African-Americans,"
said Rev. Raymond Kemp, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological
Center at Georgetown University.
"You've got a couple hundred people saying we want our
pastor back, and those couple hundred people happen to be
black in a predominantly white church, and the people who
are rallying are not looking around and seeing a lot of Father
Calicotts waiting to take his place," Kemp said.
Victims groups fear the fervor at Holy Angels will have a
chilling effect on reporting by other sexual-abuse victims
at the parish.
"One of the really untold stories behind this is how
hurtful--unintentionally to be sure--these kinds of parishioners
can be," said David Clohessy, national director of the
Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. "If you
genuinely are Christians, you will pray for Father Calicott
and mail him cookies, but you will express your concerns privately,
not publicly, and make a climate conducive for victims to
The fact that Calicott was a charismatic black pastor in
one of the few predominantly black churches in the archdiocese
of Chicago is part of the reason his cause has been championed
so loudly, said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, who
oversees the vicariate that includes Holy Angels.
"No other community has placed trust in an offending
priest as Holy Angels has done," he said.
But in the backs of the minds of many at Holy Angels and
elsewhere is the ambiguity surrounding the charges against
Calicott in the first place. The case is complicated and unclear,
and unlike many similar abuse cases, there is no corresponding
criminal investigation or civil suit. The accusers have been
quiet since the charges in 1994.
"The facts of the case are so elusive," Perry said.
"That's hard to deal with."
The alleged abuse of two 15-year-old boys occurred in 1976,
while Calicott was an associate pastor at St. Albius Church,
said James Dwyer, a spokesman for the Chicago archdiocese.
Under sexual-abuse standards the archdiocese followed when
the charges were made in the 1990s, then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin
allowed Calicott to return to Holy Angels as long as parishioners
knew of his past and he posed no further risk to children,
said former archdiocesan chancellor and current Auxiliary
Bishop Thomas Paprocki.
Before that determination was made, Calicott spent six months
in therapy at St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., followed
by independent reviews by two other sexual-abuse experts in
the Chicago area, Calicott said. He was ordered to live with
a church monitor and to have only supervised contact with
children. He also had to admit he had committed sexual abuse,
"When he was returned to the parish, he signed a covenant,
and there was never any dispute or question but that some
sexual misconduct was engaged in," Paprocki said. "It
was definitely a sexual act."
Publicly, Calicott has denied that was the case but accepted
responsibility for mishandling a vaguely described "process
of trying to deal with a situation."
"I denied doing what the boy said, presuming what was
read to me [by the archdiocese] was what the boy said I did,"
Calicott said in a phone interview. "Two days after this
thing broke, one of the young men who made the allegations
came to my rectory crying and said [the archdiocese] lied
about what he said had happened."
Longtime parishioner Monica Lewers, now Calicott's spokeswoman,
said the youth made another appearance at a Holy Angels mass
to apologize after Calicott was returned to ministry in 1995.
Though Calicott's canon lawyer, Monsignor Kevin Vann, is
appealing to the Vatican on the basis that Calicott had already
faced the charges that led to a second removal under the 2002
charter, one question that remains unresolved is if Calicott
has ever admitted to the accusations.
"That's part of the murkiness of this thing: whether
he admitted it or whether he didn't, whether the accuser accused
him and recanted or whether the accuser accused him and kept
it there," said Perry. "All that is still murky
Since the Dallas charter led to Calicott's removal in 2002,
Calicott, George, and others have praised the effort to protect
youths from sexual abuse, but also questioned the zero-tolerance
policy under which the document requires the removal of any
priest credibly accused of sexual abuse in the past.
The charter appears to fly in the face of longstanding church
statutes of limitation and the reopening of cases adjudicated
in the past, said Monsignor Thomas Green, professor of canon
law at Catholic University in Washington.
Though the Vatican has allowed abuse cases to continue despite
the apparent conflicts, he said, few of the new guidelines
have been set on paper.
"Right now, it's sort of word of mouth. Very little
has been published," he said. "Unless you have a
little clearer sense of what is happening, you're really in
a quandary to figure it out."
That has been the legal backdrop against which Calicott had
been returning to Holy Angels as his appeal continued in Rome.
Holy Angels administrator Rev. Bob Miller said Calicott had
frequently spent the night in the rectory since his suspension
in 2002. Under the early terms of his suspension, Calicott
had been permitted to attend mass at Holy Angels on Sunday,
But when it was revealed that Calicott had spoken to a health
class in the parish school, George ordered him to "absent
himself" entirely from Holy Angels until his case has
been concluded in Rome.
Calicott's stance appears to have complicated an already
messy situation in Chicago, said University of Massachusetts
at Amherst religious sociologist Jay Demerath.
"It's a situation where there are no winners,"
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune