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  Priest Removed after Abuse Charges

By Cathleen Falsani
Chicago Sun-Times
February 1, 2006

http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-bennett01.html

Cardinal Francis George has removed a 65-year-old Roman Catholic priest from ministry at a South Holland parish pending the completion of a review by the Chicago archdiocese into allegations the priest sexually abused two children in the 1960s, a spokesman for the archdiocese confirmed today.

The Rev. Joseph R. Bennett, pastor of Holy Ghost parish in South Holland since 1997, faces allegations that he sexually abused two girls while he was a priest at Chicago's St. John de La Salle parish, 120th and Martin Luther King Drive, between 1967 and 1973, said archdiocesan spokesman Jim Dwyer.

The two alleged victims, now women in their 40s, brought their allegations to the attention of the Chicago archdiocese in late 2003 and last year, according to Dwyer and Jeff Anderson, an attorney for the women.

One woman, who asked to be referred to only as "Therese," said Bennett molested her for three years beginning when she was 8 years old.

"He was the priest who gave me my First Communion, my first confession, he married my sister, he was a friend of the family, he was at our home for dinner," Therese told the Chicago Sun-Times today.

Therese was 7 years old when she met Bennett, then a young, handsome, popular priest who had just been ordained in 1966. "He was the 'cool' priest," she said. "Everybody loved him."

When Therese was 8 years old, Bennett began having sexual intercourse with her in the basement of the parish in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood, she said.

In his nearly 40 years in the priesthood, in addition to St. John de La Salle and Holy Ghost, Bennett has served other parishes, including Our Lady of the Ridge in Chicago Ridge and St. Joseph and St. Anne, St. Christina, St. Agnes and Our Lady of Fatima churches in Chicago.

Bennett's removal comes a little more than a week after a fellow priest, the Rev. Daniel McCormack, 37, was charged with two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse for allegedly fondling two boys at St. Agatha parish in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood as recently as January 2005.

George has come under fire for the handling of the abuse allegations against McCormack, who was removed from St. Agatha only after he was arrested and charged Jan. 21.

Archdiocesan officials have said they learned of allegations against McCormack in August 2005, when he was questioned by Chicago Police for allegedly molesting an 8-year-old boy twice in December 2003 after mass at St. Agatha. At the time, authorities did not believe they had sufficient evidence to charge the priest with a crime.

George did not remove McCormack from St. Agatha last August. Instead, the priest was instructed not to be alone with children and another priest who resides at St. Agatha was asked to monitor McCormack's behavior.

Both church and civil authorities are investigating claims, though, that the archdiocesan officials knew of allegations of McCormack's alleged sexual misconduct with minors as early as 2000. A nun who worked at now-shuttered Holy Family School in Chicago, told the Sun-Times last week that McCormack, who celebrated mass for pupils once a week, told a fourth-grade boy to drop his pants in the sacristy after mass.

George's emotional meeting with St. Agatha parishioners Monday night led the cardinal to reconsider Bennett's situation, Dwyer said. The South Holland priest had been "monitored" by another priest since March 2005, he said.

"He thought it better to just get him out of there," Dwyer said of George's removal of Bennett, who is now "living in a private residence away from the area."

Officially, Bennett has been removed from public ministry "pending the completion of the review" by an archdiocesan panel of clergy and lay people that vet allegations of abuse for their credibility and make recommendations to the cardinal.

cfalsani@suntimes.com

 
 

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