Angry Parishioners Fight Priest's Ouster
By Paul Sloan
A crowd of angry Catholics, some 150 strong, filed into Incarnation Church in Palos Heights Wednesday night to convince officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago that the archdiocese had made a terrible mistake when it yanked the associate pastor from their church this summer.
The archdiocese charged that Rev. Patrick O'Leary displayed "inappropriate behavior" that showed he was "at risk of sexual misconduct to the children."
His supporters, however, are screaming that their former priest has been unjustly persecuted, fired by an archdiocese oversensitive to an image tainted in recent years by pedophile priests.
The parishioners-under the banner "Committee for Parishioners Rights" and sporting "Bring Back Father Pat" buttons-are vowing not to give up the fight.
"I want this man back. Let him preach the gospel!" 77-year-old Joe Marshall said.
The crowd, as it did several times during the 2 1/2-hour meeting, rose from the pews, clapping.
"You've got to know the cardinal doesn't make knee-jerk decisions," Bishop John Gorman, who attended the meeting on behalf of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, told the crowd. "You've got to know that."
Gorman said often that the case was closed, though he did agree to pass on the parishioners' concerns to Bernardin. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said Thursday that Bernardin is considering meeting with the parish.
Since O'Leary, 33, was removed from Incarnation at the beginning of August, his fans have been pressing for his case to be reopened.
Some have posted "We Support Father Pat" signs in their front yards. Petitions have been circulated. Letters have been written. Above all, they're asking just what did O'Leary do?
"I'll speak in generalizations of what could constitute unprofessional behavior," said Ralph Bonaccorsi, director of the Office of Conciliation, when pressed to explain Wednesday. "Situations like being alone with a child . . . taking children in a car."
The audience was not satisfied.
"C'mon," one man shouted, as many moaned in disbelief.
"You're sick, man," another man mumbled audibly.
Parishioner Bill Valezano put it to Bishop Gorman like this:
"They said Father Pat hugged a child," Valezano said. "Could it have been something like the pope was hugging a child out in Colorado? Was it similar to that?"
Gorman stared down from the lectern.
"No way," he said.
"This was not some kind of witch hunt," Gorman went on. "It's a policy the archdiocese has implemented many times."
For certain, O'Leary's dismissal resulted from the archdiocese's year-old policy aimed at protecting children. Spurred by a number of cases of pedophile priests, Bernardin changed the way investigations of sexual misconduct are handled.
For instance, he replaced his priest-managed investigative system with a nine-member review committee dominated and led by non-clergy.
And in January, he put Steve Sidlowski, formerly an attorney with the Cook County public guardian's office, in charge of allegations of sexual misconduct.
Sidlowski has said that O'Leary was removed because of "concerns raised by more than one adult" and some teachers at Incarnation's school. It was done "out of an abundance of caution for the safety of the children," he said.
Nonsense, cried Pat Haseltine at the meeting. "It's being put out as for the children's security because that looks good," she said. "But that's not the problem."
Whatever happened or didn't happen - O'Leary has not been charged with any crime or with sexual misconduct - there's no question that O'Leary, who's now living in Crestwood and working in construction, deeply affected many lives.
"I am a victim of child sexual abuse," one woman announced at the meeting to gasps from the audience. "Father Pat brought me back to the church. And I wish to God I could've had a priest like Father Pat that I could've turned to.
"I can't say enough about child abuse," the woman said. "But
I know in my heart that Father Pat was not guilty of anything."
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