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Some Find It's Just As Hard to Forgive As It Is to Forget

By Mary Schmich
Chicago Tribune
March 16, 1997

Would you admit a clergyman accused of sexual misconduct into your church?

When parishioners at Sts. Faith, Hope and Charity Catholic Church in Winnetka faced the question recently, they decided no. The man in the middle of the debate was Rev. Thomas Ventura, the church's 61-year-old pastor. I called him Friday and asked for his version of the story. In a deep, calm voice tinged with his native Minnesota, this is what he said:

Three months ago, at the behest of the archdiocese, Ventura instigated a series of meetings to discuss allowing Rev. Thomas Swade, 61, to live in the Winnetka rectory. Swade, who had been accused of sexual misbehavior with six young people, would work in Chicago, away from children.

The meetings included 31 parishioners, representatives from the archdiocese, a child psychologist and Swade, who was repeatedly interrogated:

What really happened? Why did you do it? Have you changed?

The participants concluded Swade was safe, and two weeks ago, Ventura sent a letter to the parish's 1,725 families that began: "Each year Lent reminds us that we are a Church of 'second chances.' "

This particular second chance, the letter noted, was one that, before his death, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had wished for Swade.

The letter discussed Swade's sexual infractions, which Ventura said didn't include sexual intercourse or sexual "manipulation." Experts who evaluated Swade after his four years of therapy, the letter said, concluded he wasn't a pedophile.

But before long, an alarmist flier had popped up around town like the Bible's miraculously multiplying loaves and fishes. It turned up at train stations, under windshield wipers, at McDonald's, at New Trier High School, in Winnetka's downtown.

"PEDOPHILE ALERT," it began, "PARENTS BEWARE!"

The tactic offended many parishioners. One, said Ventura with a laugh, joked that to be effective, the alarmists should have put out "an intelligent flier, Winnetka style."

But the flier inflated uncertainty into anxiety among some parishioners, particularly young parents.

"Father Swade," Ventura said, "became a symbol of all the threats and dangers to children."

Nevertheless, he said, most of the parishioners were soul-searching and civil, even those who disagreed with him.

"They probably think I'm a very nice man who's not too bright and has the wool pulled over his eyes," he said without rancor.

Ventura entered the seminary as a high school freshman. Swade was his classmate. Ventura would eventually become the archdiocesan vicar for priests. Swade was to found a program that links inner-city teenagers with monied mentors.

Ventura recalled the seminary as a sexually repressive place, where teenage boys went to school on Saturdays "to keep us out of circulation with other kids we'd gone to school with, and with girls."

Swade, he said, was particularly "straight arrow."

"In a sense, he was a victim of his own goodness. He wanted to obey the rules 100 percent. The rest of us would obey the rules 80 percent. That left him with a blind spot as far as his own needs for intimacy, the awareness of what's appropriate and what's not. He's a different man now."

Most of the parishioners were willing to believe that, but about a third weren't, and last week parish leaders voted to turn Swade away. The decision made Ventura recall Moses and the Israelites fleeing to the promised land.

"You have some people who walk real fast. You have to say 'Slow down.' Other people are stragglers. They're getting a blister, and you have to say, 'Come on, stay with us, hurry up.' "

The point, he said, is for a community to stay together.

So the parish remains together and Father Swade remains in limbo. Ventura called him after midnight the other night to break the bad news.

"He was very disappointed," Ventura said. "He said, 'I want to write a note to the people, thanking them for considering this. I know they stuck their necks out.' "

The rest of us are left to ponder where we would draw the line between foolishness and forgiveness.

 
 

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