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  Priest Accused in '03 Is Removed: 2 Women Claim Rape in '60s; Recent Case Spurs Cardinal to Act

By Cathleen Falsani and Art Golab
Chicago Sun Times
February 2, 2006

Therese says she was 7 years old when she met "Father Ben."

It was the late 1960s, and the Rev. Joseph Bennett was a young, good-looking, "cool" priest fresh out of seminary and assigned to St. John de la Salle Roman Catholic Church at 102nd and King Drive, where he helped teach catechism to public school kids such as Therese once a week, she says.

Bennett heard Therese's first confession, gave her first communion, confirmed her, presided at her older sister's wedding and visited for family dinners, she says.

And when Therese was 8, she claims Bennett began having sexual intercourse with her in the lower level of the parish school, after religious education classes, before her mother picked her up to go home, a routine she says continued for three years until her family moved away when she was 11.

Therese, now 45, came forward with her allegations more than two years ago, but it wasn't until earlier this week that Cardinal Francis George removed Bennett, 65, now the pastor of Holy Ghost parish in South Holland, from ministry. The cardinal's action was a response to her allegations and those of another woman who says she, too, was sexually abused by the priest at St. John de la Salle in the late 1960s, a spokesman for the Chicago archdiocese said.

'WE'VE BEEN WAITING EVER SINCE'

The cardinal has been strongly criticized for the way he handled sexual abuse allegations against another priest, the Rev. Daniel McCormack, 37, of St. Agatha's parish. McCormack has been charged with aggravated criminal sexual abuse for allegedly molesting three boys at the North Lawndale parish between September 2001 and last month.

George removed Bennett pending the completion of a review by the archdiocese into the abuse allegations, archdiocesan spokesman Jim Dwyer confirmed Wednesday.

Therese, who asked to be identified by her first name only, initially brought her abuse allegations to the attention of the Chicago archdiocese in late 2003, she said Wednesday. The archdiocese began an investigation, flying representatives to Washington, D.C., where Therese was living at the time, to take her deposition.

Therese's allegations, church officials reportedly told her, would be investigated by an archdiocesan review board composed of lay people and clergy who vet all allegations of clergy sex abuse leveled against Chicago diocesan priests. It would take a while, she says they told her. She was patient, she says.

In September 2004, a second woman came forward and told Chicago archdiocesan officials that Bennett had similarly abused her at St. John de la Salle when she was 12 in the late 1960s, according to Jeff Anderson, Therese's attorney. The archdiocesan review board also began investigating that woman's claims, according to Anderson and Dwyer. The second woman's identity was not released.

On Oct. 15, 2005, Therese says archdiocesan officials told her the review board had reached its conclusions and would be making a recommendation to George about what, if anything, to do with Bennett. Church officials wouldn't tell Therese what the review board had decided, under its policy. On Oct. 17, 2005, Therese says a church official told her the cardinal had received the board's recommendation and it was awaiting his decision -- George could agree with the board or disagree and then take action, or not.

"We've been waiting ever since," Therese said. "I've called every three weeks or so, to that same Office of Professional Responsibility, saying, 'What's going on? Is he still there?' And they said, 'We're waiting for the cardinal to make a decision, we're waiting for the cardinal to make a decision.'

"And that's what's so frustrating for me. I'm scared for those kids who are there. I'm scared to death.

"When you're brought up Catholic, you're taught to look at the nuns and the priests like God. And I looked at the priest like God, and whatever he said was OK. As a result, I've lost my faith. And that's the biggest loss," Therese said. "I'm disgusted and I'm scared because I don't know if the priest I'm going to go to communion or confession to, who is handling the holy eucharist, I don't know what he's done with those hands. I don't know if he's abused a little girl or a little boy, and that sickens me."

'I'M DISGUSTED AND I'M SCARED'

Dwyer would not comment on the ongoing investigation into the allegations against Bennett, saying it was the archdiocese's policy not to do so. But he would say George's experience Monday night at St. Agatha parish -- where he faced 300 distraught and angry parishioners who wanted to know why he had not removed McCormack from ministry sooner despite knowing in August 2005 that the priest had been questioned by police in the alleged molestation of an 8-year-old boy -- had spurred him to action.

Anderson says the cardinal acted to oust Bennett only after the attorney threatened to sue earlier this week.

Since March 2005, Bennett had been "monitored" by another priest assigned by the archdiocese, Dwyer said.

"After reflecting on the situation that occurred on St. Agatha's, the cardinal knew of only one priest in ministry being monitored pending the results" of an archdiocesan review board investigation, Dwyer said. "He thought it better to just get [Bennett] out of there."

AN OUTRAGE, SAYS SNAP DIRECTOR

Bennett, who could not be reached for comment, is living in a private residence away from the South Holland parish, where he has been pastor since 1997, Dwyer said.

"The cardinal is really reflecting about a way there can be a non-judgmental leave so that situations like this don't happen," Dwyer said, adding that archdiocesan officials don't know of any other priest living in a "monitored" situation.

David Clohessy, national director of the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the way George handled McCormack's and Bennett's cases is an outrage. "Arguably, Bennett has had two years . . . to destroy evidence and intimidate witnesses and flee the country because of George's obsession with secrecy and his continued inaction," Clohessy said.

Wednesday afternoon, as they learned of the allegations against Bennett, some Holy Ghost parishioners expressed shock and disbelief.

"I like him. I don't believe it. I would never dream of this," said longtime parishioner Marge Glodkowski, an active volunteer. "I'll tell you, he's a good priest. I don't think he should be removed."

Choir member and cantor Tom Sesek said Bennett had guided Holy Ghost through a decline in membership and a school closing as parishioners grew older and the neighborhood changed. "I think they gave him a tough, difficult and unpopular task, but in spite of all this, I think he functioned incredibly well," Sesek said. "It's really a shock to me that there are allegations out there."

Bennett is "a very gentle man, very concerned about individuals," said parishioner Tom Cipich. "He's very outgoing, very, very friendly, has excellent sermons."

"We were flabbergasted," said Cipich's wife, Joan. "I don't believe it. My own opinion is whoever is saying these things is wrong."

 
 

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