Lawsuit Calls for Cardinal to Step up
By Stephanie Gehring
Daily Southtown [Chicago IL]
December 14, 2006
Saying Cardinal Francis George has fallen short in protecting the two men who have accused a Burbank priest of sexual abuse, attorneys for the two men filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Archdiocese of Chicago.
"In my 23 years I have never seen a cardinal do so little," said Jeff Anderson, who represents the two grown men.
"The problem is that Stepek went on attack, and (George) has failed miserably in protecting these victims that he promised he'd protect," Anderson said.
The suit is "designed to make (George) step up" and order Stepek to withdraw the defamation lawsuit he filed against the two men last month, Anderson said.
The lawsuit Anderson filed Wednesday in civil court ultimately aims to make the archdiocese responsible for any damages that Stepek is seeking from the two men, he said.
Anderson and Barbara Blaine of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said it is unusual for a priest to sue his accusers. The lawsuit against the archdiocese is unprecedented, they said.
The two alleged victims, who are brothers, accused Stepek, pastor of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Burbank, of sexually abusing them while he was assigned to St. Symphorosa Catholic Church in Chicago's Clearing community in the 1980s.
The archdiocese's review board that investigated the charges determined "there was reasonable cause to suspect that sexual abuse of minors occurred."
The case now goes to the Vatican for review.
Stepek stepped down from parish ministry during the investigation and remains on leave. He cannot engage in ministry, but retains the title of pastor at St. Albert the Great.
Despite the charges, many in Stepek's congregation have rallied around him. A candlelight vigil is planned for Sunday in front of the cardinal's house. Some parishioners also are planning a novena, or a weekly prayer service, for Stepek over the next nine Thursdays.
In November Stepek denied the abuse and claimed that the two men were angry at him and wanted to embarrass him as his 25th anniversary in the priesthood approached.
Stepek's lawsuit asks for more than $1 million in punitive damages from the brothers, claiming they falsely accused him of criminal wrongdoing, sexual misconduct and deviant behavior.
Stepek's attorney Phil Zisook said he had not seen the lawsuit against the archdiocese and would not speculate on whether Stepek would withdraw the defamation lawsuit if George ordered him to do so.
Zisook said the new lawsuit was shocking.
"To suggest that someone can destroy a reputation with false accusations and then argue that that person should have no remedy for those accusations is the height of arrogance," Zisook said.
"The law gives any person the right to protect their good name regardless of what they do and regardless of who they are," Zisook said. "To suggest that (the brothers) are somehow immune from the consequences of their acts is shocking."
He said Stepek was not on the attack but merely trying to restore his reputation.
"Stepek's reputation has been ruined. He's been removed from his parish. He's been removed from the church," Zisook said. "He's just doing what he can in the hopes of restoring his good name."
The lawsuit follows a Dec. 6 letter from Anderson to the archdiocese and a news conference Monday in which other victims of sexual abuse by other priests urged George to pressure Stepek into dropping his suit against the brothers.
"The archdiocese regrets when anyone files a lawsuit in a misconduct matter, whether the person is claiming abuse or acting in defense of a claim," archdiocese Chancellor Jimmy Lago wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "Litigation is not an effective way to achieve healing and closure."
The archdiocese had not seen the new lawsuit and could not comment but Lago said individuals had the legal right to go to court.
"We do not believe that these lawsuits help move this matter to a prompt and just resolution that is sensitive to the important concerns of the people involved," Lago said.
Blaine and Anderson say that they will not allow other victims to use the archdiocese process for handling sex abuse claims until George steps in.
Lago also wrote in a letter posted on the archdiocese's Web site Monday that the cardinal had instructed both parties not to undermine the process and avail themselves of the archdiocese's offices "to help resolve any issues that may arise to maintain the integrity of the process."
Both Blaine and Anderson said Stepek and his family made the names of the accusers public.
In Anderson's letter to the archdiocese and in the lawsuit he said an archdiocesan priest contacted the men's parents after they filed the charges against Stepek. The parents had been unaware of the abuse until that point, Anderson said.
"Neither one of them had wanted to tell the parents," Blaine said. "They felt parents were and are Catholic and didn't want the parents to be hurt."
Stephanie Gehring may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-5971.
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