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Removal of Priests Leaves Parishes Torn

By Michael Hirsley
Chicago Tribune
November 24, 1991

Rev. Martin O'Donovan and Rev. Vincent McCaffrey were seminary classmates who were ordained as Roman Catholic priests in 1978. And so McCaffrey found a sympathetic ear when he went to Our Lady of Good Counsel parish on Chicago's South Side 2 1/2 years ago.

He told O'Donovan, pastor of the parish at 3528 S. Hermitage Ave., that he was looking for an assignment. And he told him that his baggage included allegations of child sexual abuse in the Chicago archdiocese, for which he was undergoing continuing psychological treatment.

O'Donovan took his friend in as an associate pastor, clearing it with archdiocesan officials who gave assurance that therapists had OKd McCaffrey for ministry.

"I wasn't forced to take Vince in any way, shape or form," O'Donovan said in an interview last week. "I felt it was something that should be tried."

Because of that decision, he is now one of four archdiocesan pastors to lose an associate.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who heads the archdiocese, removed McCaffrey and three other associate pastors who could pose a threat to young people in their present assignments because of past allegations of child sexual abuse.

Bernardin acted last week on recommendations of a commission he appointed Oct. 24 to rectify archdiocesan policy.

The removals of McCaffrey; Rev. Kenneth Ruge from Divine Savior Parish in Norridge; Rev. Joseph Fitzharris from St. Pascal Parish, 3935 N. Melvina Ave.; and Rev. James Ray from Transfiguration Parish in Wauconda bring to six the number of archdiocesan priests dropped from their assignments in similar circumstances since this summer, and it has unleashed emotions ranging from rage to relief among area Catholics.

"The problem of pedophilia among some priests has been a cloud over other priests' heads for a long time. This action will lead to a clearing of the air," said Ken Brucks, executive director of the Edgewater Community Council and a former archdiocesan priest.

A retired archdiocesan priest, who did not want his name used, said, "There is a lot of resentment that the cardinal didn't act sooner. Fellow priests have known about those engaged in homosexual activity and pedophilia. They've been fouling the nest for good priests, making them afraid to even hug kids."

Meanwhile, at Our Lady of Good Counsel, O'Donovan, confident that McCaffrey never violated his trust, now feels he's a "man in the middle."

On one hand, he has been painted as an accomplice by those parishioners who believe the truth was withheld from them.

On the other hand, he feels that McCaffrey, who said he will resign from the priesthood, has been "devastated."

"It's not just uprooting his life, but we're talking about a person's reputation," O'Donovan said.

In an interview in the rectory, he said he told only one other parish member of McCaffrey's history, conceding that meant his associate was not constantly monitored.

"I viewed my role as supervisor. I did not view my role as shadow," O'Donovan said. "I had an element of trust in Vince, which I don't think was compromised.

"I can't think of anything I would have done differently."

The burly 39-year-old priest said he has struggled all week with whether he told his parishioners enough in his attempt to protect his friend:

"I've asked myself dozens of times this week if I did the right thing, trying to respect an individual's privacy while telling my parish what they needed to know."

At Divine Savior in Norridge, Rev. Stephen Tebes said that in the three months since he took over as pastor, he had not been informed of the past allegations against Ruge. Archdiocesan policy instructs that pastors be told such background.

The four removed priests - along with Rev. William Cloutier, former associate pastor at St. Peter parish in Skokie; and Rev. Robert Mayer, former pastor at St. Odilo Parish in Berwyn - all remain archdiocesan priests unless they resign. None has ministry assignments or continues to reside in parish settings.

Whether, when and how many others will be pulled from parishes depends on the three commission members' findings, expected to be completed by month's end.

Prosecution by civil authorities remains possible.

The state's attorney's office has confirmed that it is investigating the Mayer case and has interviewed dozens of people, including parents and children.

In the other five cases, the archdiocese is said to be cooperating with the state's attorney's office.

Parishioners were told that allegations against Ray were made in Bartlett, prompting police there to begin investigating. But Lt. Dan Palmer, supervisor of the detective bureau, said the archdiocese "is not really responding at this time. We're having difficulty."

Former priest Brucks empathized with the removed priests as well as the victims and their families.

Praising Bernardin's effort as "a message from Chicago," he said national standards on dealing with sexual abuse and pedophilia are needed, "coupled with conversation at the national level about requirement for admission to seminaries."

Seminary candidates should undergo psychological tests and interviews, particularly concerning celibacy, Brucks said.

He, like other former and present priests, had heard stories and rumors about sexual misconduct in their ranks of about 800 Chicago archdiocesan priests.

But, he insisted, "I don't know what was true and what was not. What all priests do know is that they are extremely vulnerable to unsubstantiated charges."

Recent months have been an emotional roller coaster for O'Donovan and Our Lady of Good Counsel, marking its 90th anniversary this year. In August, parish and pastor were featured in a glowing text-and-photo tribute in Life magazine.

Last week, O'Donovan agreed to an interview, but wanted no more photos. "The last couple of days couldn't have been worse," he said. "But I've been consoled and supported by parishioners."

One of those who called reminded O'Donovan of the Life piece and the elation it brought to parishioners. Then he repeated a phrase he'd heard in a movie.

"He said, 'Never trust happiness.' " O'Donovan recalled, cracking a smile.

It passed quickly, and he said, "This is a very difficult situation and one that we can't close our eyes to and hope it goes away.

"But if this ruined who we are, then maybe we're not who we think we are."

 
 

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