Parish Resources Shouldn't Be Used to Fete Accused Priest

Daily Southtown [Chicago IL]
December 6, 2006,061edt1.article

The issue: Anniversary party was publicized in church bulletin and tickets sold through the parish rectory.

We say: While abuse allegations are being investigated, church must avoid appearance of bias or favoritism toward one side. Use of parish resources to promote party should have been avoided.

Many of the parishioners of St. Albert the Great in Burbank still think the world of the Rev. Robert Stepek. He's been referred to as "a great priest" who in his seven years as pastor has connected with his community and completely tended to the spiritual needs of a most vibrant southwest suburban Catholic parish.

These same parishioners have remained loyal to Stepek as he has undergone the greatest crisis of his priesthood. In May, as Stepek was about to celebrate his 25th anniversary as a priest, accusations were leveled that he had molested two brothers in the 1980s. Last month, an Archdiocese of Chicago review panel found "there was a reasonable cause to suspect that sexual abuse of minors occurred." Stepek's case now will be reviewed by the Vatican, and he could be defrocked. Stepek retains the title of pastor, but he is not allowed to participate in the ministry, cannot wear a priest's collar and is required to live in a supervised setting away from the parish.

Stepek has denied the accusations. He says the accusers hold longtime grudges against him, have financial motivations and wanted to embarrass him during his 25th-anniversary year.

Last week, hundreds of Stepek's supporters held a dinner dance in his honor in Bridgeview. The event had the support of St. Albert's interim pastor; it was advertised in the St. Albert newsletter; and tickets for it were sold at the parish rectory. The archdiocese was aware of the event beforehand but did not sanction it.

It's not our intent here to pass judgment on Stepek. He is entitled to due process within the parameters of the Catholic Church. But to ensure that process serves the best interests of all within the church, it is important that the church avoid any sign of favoritism to either the accused or the accuser during an investigation of abuse. While there was nothing wrong with loyal parishioners throwing a party for Stepek, we believe the parish newsletter should not have been made available to them to publicize the event, nor should the rectory have helped with the ticket sales. The archdiocese should have demanded that no church resources be used in connection with the dinner.

These may seem like minor -- and to some, unfair -- quibbles to some. But one of the big complaints about the church during the sex abuse crisis of the last few years has been that the church treated many accusations cavalierly. Legitimate accusations were ignored; priests were given the benefit of the doubt or -- at the worst -- transferred from a parish where the accusation originated. Priests were able to maintain their status. The result? Oftentimes there were repeat accusations that again weren't taken seriously -- and worse, more victims of abuse.

It has appeared that Stepek's case is being handled seriously by the archdiocese. But putting the announcement of his dinner in the newsletter and selling tickets at the rectory could have given the appearance that Stepek has maintained his full status and privileges within the church and parish. That is not how it should be during this stage of such an investigation. To ensure fairness, the archdiocese needs to inform St. Albert and other parishes that such shows of support must be completely independent of the church itself. Would St. Albert parishioners have allowed the announcement of a fundraiser for the accusers of Stepek to appear in their newsletter?

We know the loyalty displayed by Stepek's supporters is heartfelt. Perhaps some day he will return to the ministry. But in this day and age, as long as he and other priests stand accused, the church needs to prove its impartiality as it gets to the root of a problem that in recent years has shaken its foundation.


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