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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 sexual abuse.

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 abusers?

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 rectory.

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 come forward."

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, said Paprocki.

"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 to me."

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.

Little published

"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, said Dwyer.

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," he said.


Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

 


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