Church Reinstates Priest Accused of Sex Molestation
By Paul Galloway
October 13, 1995
Even as the Catholic Church is wrestling publicly and privately with the problem of sexual molestation in the priesthood, the Archdiocese of Chicago Thursday took the extraordinary step of formally reinstating a pastor who was removed last year for sexual misconduct.
The reinstatement of Rev. John Calicott, a Roman Catholic priest who acknowledged engaging in sexual acts with two male minors while a priest in 1976, came with a rigid set of conditions and guidelines, as the archdiocese painstakingly explained its decision.
But it also represents a stark departure from a strict policy instituted by the archdiocese that ruled out the reinstatement of priests guilty of sexual misconduct.
Although the reinstatement of Calicott to his post at Holy Angels Catholic Church on the South Side was enthusiastically supported by some of his former parishioners, it was viewed with a more jaundiced eye by others.
The head of an organization of victims who have been abused by priests was especially critical since her organization had pushed the archdiocese in recent years to adopt a specific policy about priestly behavior.
"I think it's troublesome," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's a highly unusual move. The archdiocese is basically saying their policy is no policy at all."
"I think this goes against what any reputable therapist would say. Therapists say people who molest children are always at risk to abuse again. They are never healed. Most reabuse. The archdiocese has learned this the hard way."
But the priest at the center of the decision expressed nothing but joy.
"I'm elated," said Calicott, 48, who became Holy Angels pastor in 1992 and has been on administrative leave since his removal in April 1994. At the time, he was the 20th priest to have been removed for sexual misconduct since July 1991. The total now is 22, an archdiocesan spokesman said.
"I don't think he's as happy as we are," said Rex Alexander, a member of the parish council and childhood friend of Calicott.
In a statement, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin noted that his decision to reinstate Calicott reversed his policy that priests who sexually abused minors would never be returned to a parish ministry.
Bernardin, who is in Rome, said he made an exception because of two psychological evaluations that said Calicott poses no "significant risk to children" if he continues therapy. He also cited the long passage of time since the misconduct, with no subsequent incidents, and the support of church leaders, parishioners and even the two adult males who were abused 19 years ago.
A condition of Calicott's return is that he have an "on-site (adult) monitor" whenever he is with children.
In a noon service Sunday at the church, 607 E. Oakwood Blvd., Calicott will be reinstated when he signs a "covenant" with the church asking for forgiveness and promising to abide by its restrictions.
These include his pledge of having adult monitors and continuing therapy sessions.
Several parishioners interviewed Thursday were unanimous in their delight about Calicott's return.
"I'm so glad it's over, thank God, and he can come back," said Earline Dailey, a church member for more than 40 years. "Our prayers are answered. He's such a strong person and caring person. He was so good with the young."
"Father John is one of the best things that's happened to our parish," said parish council member Alexander, who was an altar boy with Calicott at Holy Angels when they both lived in the Ida B. Wells housing complex and attended the parish school together. "He's one of the most spiritual human beings I've ever met."
Calicott arrived as pastor to succeed the dynamic, well-known Rev. George Clements, who had infused the impoverished Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood with pride, making the parish pay its own way and establishing an outstanding school, which now has 1,300 students.
When the church was destroyed by fire 1986, Clements led a nationwide rebuilding campaign.
"We'd lost a legend in Father Clements, and we were close to not being a parish anymore," Alexander said. "But Father John brought a new spirituality, not only to the parish but to the community. When we lost him because of the allegations, it was as devastating as the fire."
The charges were made by the two adult males to the archdiocese on March 31, 1994. After an investigation, the fitness review board recommended the removal of Calicott, who acknowledged the misconduct.
Blaine, who has led a highly publicized fight against what her SNAP organization described as a church cover-up for sexually predatory priests, while critical of the decision, found some solace in the terms outlined in the announcement.
"If there's a redeeming factor, it's that they're going public with this. But I can't imagine that Cardinal Bernardin would risk putting any child at risk, especially since we know how devastating it is."
Even though the parishioners may want him back, Blaine said, "I think the kids come first. How you treat a criminal shouldn't be based on popularity. He wasn't indicted, but he admitted to criminal behavior. His coming back to the ministry is not a right."
Calicott agreed with Blaine on one point.
"The main issue to me is the risk to children," he said, "and I'm not a risk to kids."
Calicott said he understands the anger and pain of victims. "But all these situations are not the same," he said. "That's the bottom line. I've gone through two psychological assessments. I think the difficulty that faces the church and everyone involved is that a better understanding will assuage the pain."
"My concern is always with the kids," Alexander said. "But we did intensive research on priests accused of sexual misconduct, and we've watched Father John accept what he was given, and we are sure there is no risk. I once told Cardinal Bernardin that I would leave my two daughters with Father John. I trust him totally."
Auxiliary Bishop George Murry, who heads the archdiocese's Vicariate VI, a region where Holy Angels is located, will officiate at Sunday's reinstatement service.
"What we were trying to do is put his return into a religious context," Murry said. "It will be in context of liturgy, based on an Old Testament covenant between God and his people."
Murry said parishioners have been adamant in seeking Calicott's reinstatement.
"He's very highly thought of, in the church and the African-American community," he said. "A large number of members have written and come up to me to assure me they understood the circumstances and wanted him back, and I have visited the parish a number of times."
Murry said while he knows of no similar reinstatement in this archdiocese, such reinstatements have occurred elsewhere. "I think that what's very different about this situation is it's all being done completely aboveboard.
During Calicott's absence, Murry appointed a series of priests to serve there temporarily. "To be fair to him, Calicott had not resigned as pastor. He was removed and wanted to go through this therapeutic process.
"If the process hadn't worked itself out and if the board had asked he not be returned, we would have asked for his resignation and a permanent pastor would have been appointed."
"We feel so good that Father John is coming back," said Jessica Hamilton, a member for more than 30 years. "He has been a role model to a lot of the children."
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