Sins of the Fathers
The Springfield Diocese Tries to Restore Faith and Trust Following Years of Priestly Misconduct
By Dave Bakke
SJ-R.com [Springfield IL]
March 13, 2005
In the past 20 years, three watershed events in the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese have shaken, and in some cases destroyed, the image of the priest and the faith of Catholics.
The Rev. Alvin Campbell was first. Campbell used his priesthood at St. Maurice Parish in Morrisonville as a tool to seduce boys. He was convicted as a pedophile in the days when using the words "pedophile" and "priest" in the same sentence was unthinkable. In 1985, Campbell pleaded guilty but mentally ill to molestation charges. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
For Catholics across the 28 counties of the Springfield diocese, Campbell's exposure was the beginning of their loss of innocence. They did not let it go without a fight. Their initial reaction was outrage and anger - directed almost as much at media coverage of Campbell as at his crimes.
In the 19 years since Campbell's guilty plea, the Springfield diocese has earned a reputation in national Catholic circles as a troubled, volatile place. The list of names of local clergy linked to scandals from homosexual and heterosexual affairs to embezzlement is a long one.
Next came Bishop Daniel Ryan. His early years as bishop were marred by his admitted alcohol abuse for which he received treatment in the summer of 1986. Ryan's final two years before his resignation in 1999 were spent under the cloud of sexual misconduct accusations.
The bishop resigned a week before a civil lawsuit was filed in Springfield against Campbell and the diocese by Matthew McCormick, who said he was one of Campbell's victims but had repressed the memory. McCormick's attorney, Frederic Nessler of Springfield, linked Campbell and Ryan by charging that multiple homosexual relationships by the bishop created an "atmosphere of tolerance to the sexual abuse of minors" by Campbell and other priests.
Campbell died late in 2002, with McCormick's lawsuit against him still pending in Sangamon County court. A year after Campbell's death, the
suit was settled out of court, and McCormick received a financial payment from the diocese.
In 2002, there were new allegations that Ryan had solicited sex from a then-15-year-old boy in 1984. That case was referred to the Sangamon County state’s attorney but could not be prosecuted, an assistant state’s attorney said, because the statute of limitations had expired.
As recently as last July, police were called to Ryan’s home in Springfield to investigate a domestic dispute. That included an allegation of battery when a man complained to police that Ryan had kicked him in the leg. But due to conflicting reports from Ryan and the others involved, the incident was dropped by the police.
Ryan, who is in poor health, sometimes celebrates Mass in his home for guests, but his official duties as a priest ended nearly three years ago as allegations against him were investigated. The diocese has referred to him since as a "private citizen."
On Dec. 21, 2004, the Rev. Eugene Costa’s name was added to the list when he was found beaten in Springfield’s Douglas Park, a place known for gay activity. Two young men - Jamie E. Gibson, 17, and Ryan Boyle, 15 - are awaiting trial on charges of beating Costa that night.
The scandals of the past 19 years affected how the first reports of Costa’s beating were received. Though some would not believe that Costa was in the park for any reason other than spiritual, many others immediately came to the opposite conclusion. A few weeks after the attack, however, a statement from the diocese all but admitted that Costa was an actively gay man.
Ryan’s successor, Bishop George Lucas, met in Sherman with the combined congregations of Costa’s two churches, Holy Family in Athens and St. John Vianney in Sherman.
Lucas began that January night by celebrating Mass. Afterward, he stayed on the altar to speak to a church full of hurt and confused parishioners. Lucas said the police investigation into Costa’s beating had uncovered a pattern of behavior that led to revelations about Costa’s life. Lucas invited parishioners to ask questions of him.
"Can you give us any assurance," Judy Kren asked the bishop, "that what happened to Monsignor Costa will have ramifications across the diocese in that this will not occur elsewhere? That you won’t be in another parish a couple of months from now doing this same thing? That the truth of behaviors by the priests will not be overshadowed?
"Can you promise us that no more is anything going to be hidden? Will you promise us that you will be open and honest with us?"
Lucas said he could promise only that he would appeal to his priests to live according to their vows and to have the morals people expect them to have.
"I don’t want to go through anything like this again," Lucas told the crowd. "I spent Sunday with Monsignor Costa’s parents. I don’t want to have to go through anything like that again, either."
Kren said later that, given the diocese’s history of turmoil and the problems she believes still remain, anyone coming into diocesan leadership would be daunted by the job at hand.
"I would say that he was very forthright as far as wanting to do the right thing when he got here," Kren says of Lucas. "I think maybe he’s just overwhelmed right now."
Depending on what happens in the future, Costa’s most lasting legacy to the people of the Springfield diocese may not be his priesthood. It may turn out to be Costa’s sins, not his ministry, that will result in meaningful change.
That will depend in large part on the small, soft-spoken man many people believe was sent to Springfield to make those changes.
Gentle. Cautious. Guarded.
Unhelpful. Secretive. Cold.
Impeccable. Simple. Respected.
These words are used by people who know him to describe Bishop George Lucas, 55.
Costa was discovered in the park exactly one week after the bishop marked his fifth anniversary in Springfield. In his first five years as bishop, Lucas made only one major personnel change in the diocesan hierarchy, appointing Monsignor Carl Kemme as vicar general, a position just below bishop in a diocese the size of Springfield’s. Lucas kept Costa and Monsignor John Renken, who had been Ryan’s number-two men, in place.
But in the aftermath of the Costa beating, Lucas made several important changes in the diocesan leadership:
Costa resigned as diocesan chancellor and parish planning coordinator as well as from his positions as pastor of St. John Vianney and Holy Family. He is undergoing a lengthy physical and psychological rehabilitation period at an undisclosed location outside of Illinois.
Renken was relieved of his leadership duties as moderator of the curia, vicar general and moderator of canonical and civil affairs. He remains judicial vicar and diocesan judge in the tribunal, which grants marriage annulments, and he remains director of the permanent diaconate.
Kemme assumed Renken’s former duties as moderator of the curia, meaning he oversees day-to-day operations of the diocese and its employees. Kemme also succeeded Costa as chancellor.
Monsignor Kenneth Steffen, Renken’s co-pastor at St. James Church in Riverton and St. Katherine Drexel Church in Springfield, went on an indefinite leave of absence. The diocese gave no details on the reason for his leave. An announcement read at his parishes in mid-February said Steffen left to receive physical, emotional and holistic healing.
Steffen holds leadership positions in the diocese including episcopal delegate for matrimonial concerns, director of pilgrimages, chaplain for the diocesan Filipino community, adjutant judicial vicar in the tribunal office, chaplain for St. Patrick’s School in Springfield and associate director for deacons.
Aside from being co-pastors, Renken and Steffen are the two highest-ranking clergy in the tribunal. They are diocesan judges who decide on annulment requests. Renken remains in that capacity while Steffen is on leave.
In an interview with The State Journal-Register editorial board after the Costa beating, Lucas denied the popular notion that he was sent from St. Louis five years ago to "clean up" or "stabilize" or otherwise calm a volatile Springfield diocese.
"We don’t look at it as ‘cleaning things up,’ " Lucas says. "I don’t think the role of the bishop is to ‘fix things.’ "
Some previous Springfield bishops, notably Joseph McNicholas and James Griffin, were larger-than-life and even egotistical figures. Ryan’s public persona was jovial and outgoing. Lucas does not come across as particularly charismatic or colorful. He is a slightly built man who speaks in guarded, cautious tones. If there is any steel to his makeup, Lucas keeps it from public view.
The Rev. Charles Bouchard is president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, where some Springfield priests have studied. Bouchard knows Lucas, and he knows his church. He says that even if Lucas were sent to Springfield for a reason, the church would never admit it.
"I’m sure the Vatican was aware of the problems with Bishop Ryan when the new bishop was appointed," says Bouchard. "But they would never acknowledge that someone was ‘sent somewhere to fix something.’
"Maybe the Vatican sent him there to fix things, and maybe they didn’t. But if they did, he would be a good choice."
Lucas rose swiftly in the church’s hierarchy in St. Louis through the late 1980s and 1990s. He became a protege of the then-archbishop of St. Louis, Justin Rigali, and was on the church’s fast track. He rose from vice principal of St. Louis Preparatory-North to chancellor of the archdiocese to vicar general of the archdiocese to rector, board of directors and board of trustees of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and the council of priests of the archdiocese.
Lucas was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, its official church name, on Dec. 14, 1999.
Bob Schutzius of St. Louis, a retired business professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, knew Lucas during the bishop’s time in St. Louis. Schutzius also is aware of the rocky history of the Springfield diocese, particularly under Ryan.
"My thought when Lucas went there was that, after Ryan, they needed someone good and solid to ‘save the place,’ " Schutzius says. "When Lucas went up there, I thought that gave Springfield a big jump after Ryan. Everybody here was saying that’s good, they got a good man."
Although he regards Lucas as cooperative and easy to talk to, Schutzius believes those qualities play no role in the selection of a bishop.
"You have to have other kinds of things at that stage of the game," he says, "a conservative reputation, education in Rome and unflagging loyalty to the institution. No matter what, he’s going to defend the institution."
Lucas’ second five years in Springfield have started out to be different from the first five years.
"Apparently there were not a whole lot of changes since he came to Springfield," says James Hitchcock, a Catholic and a professor at Saint Louis University. Lucas was a student of Hitchcock’s at SLU. "That’s what I would expect. He wouldn’t see himself as cleaning house.
"When bishops are appointed, they are sort of cautioned about that, ‘Be careful, move slowly, don’t upset too many apple carts.’
"I would tend to think of him as being a very cautious person," Hitchcock says. "In reference to the problems up there, he strikes me as someone who would be very sensitive to public image and scandal, and I’d guess he would be someone who would deal with them cautiously, trying to minimize the fallout."
Most people outside the Springfield diocese who pay attention to the workings of the church are aware of the diocese’s troubled reputation, particularly due to the accusations against Ryan.
In fact, Ryan’s fellow bishops could not have missed those. Stephen Brady of Petersburg and his Roman Catholic Faithful supporters at times have stood outside annual meetings of the U.S. bishops holding large signs accusing Ryan of being a "sexual predator." Ryan’s fellow bishops could see the protests as they went into their meetings.
When Ryan resigned and subsequently left public ministry, many people assumed those events were connected to Brady’s campaign and to the court case filed by McCormick in 1999.
But Lucas says that is "twisted logic." He says it could just as easily be the other way around - the attorneys filed their lawsuit as soon as they found out Ryan was retiring.
Bouchard does not know whether the original accusations against Ryan had any effect on how or why Lucas was assigned to Springfield as Ryan’s successor. How Catholic bishops are selected and assigned, he said only slightly facetiously, "is one of the great mysteries of the world."
"Following something like Ryan and the other thing that’s happened now (Costa)," Bouchard says, "it’s anybody’s worst nightmare. I can’t imagine how you would deal with this … I would imagine he’s very lonely right now. There aren’t a lot of people he can talk to about something like this."
The Catholic Church forbids its priests to be sexually active - any type of sexual contact is forbidden under the clerical vow of celibacy. A number of central Illinois court cases and diocesan statements of sympathy for victims of priestly sexual misconduct are evidence that some of the priests have broken that vow.
The intersection of Catholic priests and sexuality is a hypersensitive union. Secrecy and privacy are the bywords in both worlds.
The specter of sex and the Catholic priest is so fearsome that false allegations are sometimes leveled, or are threatened to be leveled, at priests in retaliation by disgruntled parishioners or, in some cases, by another priest.
The night Lucas talked to Costa’s parishioners in Sherman, he told them that the rumors about priests in the Springfield diocese "are vicious and something I have never seen the like of anyplace I have been."
Brady’s campaign against Ryan and other priests he has accused of misconduct - through the media, on his Web site and in mass mailings to parishioners - is partly responsible for the atmosphere in the Springfield diocese. Not every diocese has someone like Brady.
Lucas is not willing to discuss Brady publicly. But the bishop says he also realizes that the church also bears responsibility for creating the atmosphere. The history of priestly misconduct in the local diocese, as well as church scandals across the country, he says, has done its part.
"Trust has been broken in some serious ways in this diocese and other dioceses," he says. "The past sexual abuse of minors is a gross example of that.
"The fact that priests and other church workers have misused their offices - those things have been established in some very sad cases. So I think there is reason why people would not so freely offer their trust as they might have at another time."
Learning the truth about priestly misconduct is difficult at best, and often impossible, even for the bishop and the police department. That is why the issue sometimes never gets beyond a "he said, he said" situation.
Sometimes it is necessary for diocesan leadership to explain that priests have the same rights as any other citizen. It has been the diocese’s policy not to disclose details of priestly misbehavior unless it is a criminal matter. Priests’ non-criminal sexual activity has been handled in the same way an internal personnel matter is treated in the secular world. Any details that have been made public have come from the victims and their attorneys.
Even in the Costa case, though the description in the diocesan statement characterized Costa’s activities as "risky" and "immoral" was unusually explicit, the diocese stopped short of saying explicitly that Costa was an active homosexual.
In the church world, there is an expectation of confidentiality between a priest and his bishop if the subject is not criminal in nature. Homosexuality, as long as it does not involve minors, is not a crime that needs to be reported to any secular authority. The bishop and priest usually deal with it together.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there is no protocol for a bishop to follow in the church’s canon law if a bishop discovers one of his priests is actively gay.
"A bishop has to judge the situation as he sees fit," says Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the USCCB. "There would be ramifications and different ways this could take place. Is this a case of a priest confessing privately to his bishop that he is sexually active? Or is it a priest who is openly proclaiming to the world that he is sexually active?
"Those situations would each be dealt with differently. The circumstances would indicate how the bishop would react to it."
Lucas says that if he receives a credible allegation of homosexual activity between a priest and another adult, one of the first things he does is confront the priest.
"I would call the priest in," he says. "I’d approach the priest and tell him this is what I heard and ask him about it. I would initiate my own investigation to the extent that I can.
"It’s not like I have secret police out there. I would ask other people who might be knowledgeable or talk to someone else who’s alleged to be involved perhaps and pursue it to the extent that I can."
Lucas now has another option: He can turn the allegations over to investigators who have been hired by the diocese.
The Feb. 17 creation of an investigative team under the direction of former U.S. Attorney Bill Roberts to look into non-criminal allegations against local priests is seen by some as a further step by Lucas toward "cleaning up" the diocese. Others see it as mere window dressing, saying investigators hired by the diocese, doing work paid for by the diocese, cannot possibly be independent.
Roberts and two assistants will coordinate any investigation into allegations that are made against the priests. They have created an e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a toll-free line (1-866-346-2003) to enable people to contact them.
"This is a matter of grave importance to Catholics in this diocese," Lucas said at the press conference announcing the creation of the investigative arm. "I have directed Bill Roberts to conduct a thorough, open-minded and unbiased investigation."
There is a notion among some that a conspiracy of silence exists among the priests - otherwise the "good ones" would have turned in the "bad ones." But Lucas says he expects his priests to speak up if they know about any misconduct among their brethren. The bishop sent a letter to all of the priests in the diocese asking them to cooperate with Roberts.
"I ask your full cooperation with this investigation if you are contacted by investigators," Lucas’ letter said. "If you have information that would be helpful to them, please offer it. Encourage your people to do the same."
But a source in the local Catholic community says that some local priests are unhappy with the bishop’s creation of the investigative panel, referring to it as a "witch hunt."
After the creation of the investigative team was announced, diocesan spokeswoman Kathie Sass said Lucas would answer no more questions for this article, preferring to step back and let investigators take over.
In a column published in the Feb. 27 issue of Catholic Times, the bishop wrote that, "I want the investigation and reporting to be as transparent as possible so that all can trust that we are determined to face the truth and deal with any misconduct in a forthright manner, according to church law."
Roberts’ group will investigate allegations of non-criminal misconduct and report on its findings to a commission to be named by Lucas. Lucas said in the column that panel will advise him and issue a public report of its findings.
One of the allegations to be investigated involves the bishop himself. The allegation comes from Thomas Munoz, who is currently in Menard Correctional Center with a history of church break-ins and other, more violent crimes but who was for a time an altar server and Eucharistic minister at local parishes.
Munoz, 37, claims that he and Lucas had a sexual relationship, but the only specific date offered as proof has been discredited by his roommate, who says Munoz was home that night. Lucas has said the allegations against him are "totally false."
In November 2003, the Springfield diocese announced that it had paid more than $2.1 million to victims of sexual abuse by its priests.
Since then, two more out-of-court settlements have been announced - $3 million in payments in February 2004 that settled 28 claims of priestly sexual abuse of minors, and another $1.2 million paid in July 2004 to settle civil suits brought by eight men against former Quincy priest Walter Weerts. They charged that Weerts had abused them between 1973 and 1980. That brought the total paid in settlements to approximately $6.3 million.
The money is only part of the cost. The erosion of trust and an acrimonious atmosphere in the diocese are costs too. This is the diocese Lucas took over five years ago. It remains the diocese he has today.
"Before I arrived, I did ask neighboring bishops and other people who might have a sense of the diocese to get some understanding of what might be the challenges and the blessings of life in this diocese," Lucas says. "I wasn’t living on Mars. I was in St. Louis, and after I was appointed I heard some things, but there was no organized orientation from anyone about life in the diocese."
Lucas is learning more all the time about what it means to lead a diocese with Springfield’s turbulent history.
At the end of February, the bishop met privately with a group of longtime Springfield Catholics. They asked to meet with him to talk about their hope that, under his leadership, the diocese will become a stable, relatively trouble-free place. They wanted to gauge for themselves whether Lucas has the stuff it will take.
According to some who were at the meeting, the discussion was frank. While the bishop could not tell them everything he is doing or that he will do, the group came away cautiously optimistic that Lucas means what he says when he promises to clear the air.
"I want our people to be confident in our priests and our own Catholic people to be proud of their participation in the church," Lucas said in an interview, "and to live in a larger community without being embarrassed about their membership and activity in the church."
Dave Bakke, a columnist and staff writer for The State Journal-Register, was editor of the Catholic Times, the official newspaper of the Springfield diocese, from 1992 to 1998.
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