Archdiocese Delayed Inquiry
Accused Priest Left Country First
By Todd Lighty and Ofelia Casillas
April 5, 2002
The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago did not immediately launch an investigation into charges that a Northwest Side priest molested several children in one family in 1999, instead relying on the priest's religious order to look into the accusations.
Only after the family wrote to the archdiocese did Chicago church officials interview the victims and refer the case to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, about six weeks after the order told the archdiocese of the allegations.
By the time Chicago police started a criminal investigation, detectives were unable to locate the priest, Rev. Carlos Peralta, who had previously been accused of sexual misconduct with minors. His religious order, the Salesian Fathers, eventually transferred him out of the country.
Nevertheless, the Chicago Police Department's child-abuse investigation remains open. "When we learned of this, the priest was long gone," spokesman Patrick Camden said Thursday.
An investigation by DCFS found that the evidence substantiated the charges, according to a spokesman for the agency. A lawyer for the Salesian order said Peralta, 39, has not been charged with a crime and maintains his innocence.
Archdiocese spokesman James Dwyer said Thursday that church officials properly handled the case when it was first brought to their attention in late May 1999. Nationally, the archdiocese is generally held in high regard for the way it handles sex abuse charges.
Dwyer said the Salesians had removed Peralta from St. John Bosco Parish and had started its own internal investigation. The archdiocese, Dwyer added, did not know who the victims were.
"We didn't have a victim and [Peralta] was gone," he said. "We have to talk to the victim or the victims' representative before we report the abuse."
But Jeffrey Anderson, the family's lawyer, said the archdiocese should have reported the allegations to child welfare workers and law enforcement authorities when they first surfaced, in May 1999.
"They had a sexual predator," Anderson said. "Why wait to report that?"
Anderson has filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Peralta, the Salesian order and the archdiocese.
According to Anderson and the lawsuit, Peralta sexually abused four children from October 1998 through May 1999 during occasions when he slept over at the children's home.
Richard A. Beran, a lawyer for the Salesians--a religious society primarily devoted to youth education and ministry--said the order never reached any conclusions in its investigation because officials "were never permitted to interview the family members."
Beran said Peralta denied any sexual contact with the children. The priest is now working in Mexico City and has had no unsupervised contact with children, he said.
The Salesian order began running St. John Bosco parish four years ago at the suggestion of neighborhood residents who thought the order could better serve the Northwest Side community's many Spanish speakers.
"We were asked by people from the area to come to Chicago," said Brother Tom Dion. "It had to do with them growing up in our churches in Mexico, being familiar with the work we do and wanting us in Chicago."
Some parishioners said Thursday that the Salesian priests have done a good job. Even if one priest has fallen from grace, they said, he was quickly removed.
"First I felt sad with what happened," said Carmen Ortiz, who has two children in an after-school program at the parish's youth center. "But the only thing I've seen is how they've helped the community. ... What they've done for us are good things to help us and support us spiritually."
Maria Mariscal said she will encourage her 12-year-old daughter to continue participating in church activities. "There's a lot of people who are worried," she said. "My thought is that this is not going to change a faith I've worked hard to develop. ... I won't lose confidence."
Also Thursday, a lawyer filed a motion to unseal court documents from a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Joliet, saying the papers could reveal allegations against as many as 10 priests.
Keith Aeschliman said he saw the documents while working on Joseph Dittrich's lawsuit against a Lockport priest and the diocese in 1993. He said they included accusations leveled at 17 additional priests, only "seven or eight" of whom have been publicly acknowledged.
Aeschliman expects to argue the motion Tuesday in front of Judge Herman Haase.
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