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  Bishop Hires Team to Check Abuse Reports

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [Springfield IL]
February 17, 2005

Bishop George J. Lucas of the Roman Catholic diocese of Springfield, Ill., said Thursday that he had appointed an investigative team, headed by a former U.S. attorney, to look into allegations of sexual misconduct by the diocese's clergy.

A spokeswoman for the diocese, Kathie Sass, said the bishop's decision to form the panel came in the wake of an incident involving the diocese's former chancellor, the Rev. Eugene Costa. In December, Costa was found badly beaten in a Springfield park frequented by homosexual men.

The diocese covers 28 counties, including Madison.

Sass said other allegations of clergy misconduct had come to the bishop's attention in recent weeks, but she was not specific. "We are not talking about anything illegal," she said, "but the bishop has been very frustrated and he wants to figure out what is fact, what is rumor and what is sheer maliciousness, so he hired someone to get to the truth." Lucas turned to William Roberts, a Methodist and former U.S. attorney for central Illinois, to lead the investigation. Roberts is also a former legal counsel for Gov. Jim Edgar and is now a partner in a Springfield law firm.

Roberts named two other attorneys to his team.

One recent allegation of sexual misconduct against the diocese involves the bishop. A man involved with the diocese's Hispanic ministry has said he has had several sexual encounters with Lucas. Lucas has denied the accusations.

"Recently, there have been allegations of gross misconduct against a number of priests of this diocese - indeed even one against me, which I know to be false," Lucas said Thursday.

Lucas was on the faculty of St. Louis Preparatory Seminary North in the 1980s and was chancellor and then vicar general of the St. Louis archdiocese in the early 1990s. He was rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary from 1995 until he was named bishop of Springfield in 1999.

Critics of the archdiocese took issue with Lucas' assertion that the investigative panel is independent.

"This panel is paid by Lucas and answers to Lucas," said Stephen G. Brady, head of a Petersburg, Ill.-based conservative organization called Roman Catholic Faithful. "There seems to be a conflict of interest here. There's no independence in this independent investigation."

Roberts said his team has been instructed by Lucas to "follow the trail wherever it leads, and has indicated his full cooperation." Asked if he would be interviewing the man who has accused Lucas of sexual misconduct, Roberts said, "We've invited anyone who has anything to say to talk to us. We're going to search for the truth without prejudice or bias."

Sass said Roberts' team will be searching for evidence of homosexuality among the diocese's priests. "That certainly could be one thing," she said. The Catholic church is currently undergoing a shift in its stance on homosexual priests.

This fall, Vatican representatives will be visiting over 100 U.S. seminaries to investigate how the role of sexuality affects the formation of American priests. Some Catholics feel the priesthood has become overwhelmingly gay, potentially alienating heterosexuals from enrolling in seminaries.

After Costa was beaten, the diocese issued a statement that Costa had been engaged in "immoral" and "risky" behavior. Costa resigned as chancellor and as pastor of two nearby parishes, and is undergoing therapy. Two youths have been charged with his beating.

Calls to several diocesan priests were not returned. The Rev. Roger Schoenhofen, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul in Alton, is not a diocesan priest, but a member of a religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He said he thought that Lucas was simply doing his job. "As a shepherd of the diocese, you have to make sure your priests who minister here are in good standing in the Catholic church," he said.

Roberts said Lucas' investigation should not be seen as a witch hunt or an invasion of priests' lives. "Those who are committed to the priesthood welcome this announcement," he said.

Sass agreed. "People who become priests take a vow to live a certain kind of life," she said. "Priests who are leading virtuous lives are going to be happy to cooperate."
 
 

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