|Priest-Abuse Allegation Called 'Not Credible'
Joliet Diocese Panel Fails to Resolve Other Claims against Rector
By Hal Dardick
Chicago Tribune [Joliet IL]
March 30, 2007
The Catholic Diocese of Joliet announced Thursday that its Review Committee found "not credible" one set of sexual abuse allegations against Rev. James Burnett, the former rector of its cathedral.
But in a second case, the details of which are not yet public, the committee "has not been able to resolve the credibility of that accusation," according to a diocesan statement.
In February 2006, Burnett, then rector of Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet, was put on administrative leave by the diocese. He remains "out of ministry" pending the outcome of a state's attorney's review and the resolution of civil lawsuits that have or are expected to be filed against him, the statement said.
The "not credible" finding "doesn't mean it is true or isn't true," said Doug Delaney, executive assistant to Bishop Peter Sartain. "It means they weren't able to substantiate it under their guidelines."
The volunteer 11-member Diocesan Review Committee, established in 1993 to review allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, includes a retired judge, a retired principal, a prosecutor, a pastor, a former Illinois State Police detective and a psychiatrist, among others.
In a March 2006 letter to former parishioners, Burnett, 64, said the allegations were untrue. "I am innocent of all the accusations that have been made against me, and I know that that innocence will prevail," he wrote.
Less than two months later, Dan Shanahan of Phoenix filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese, alleging Burnett abused him, starting in 1978 when Shanahan was 8 years old and attending St. Mary Catholic Church in Mokena, where Burnett was assigned for 16 years until 1990.
The 40 or so incidents of abuse went on for four years, said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul-based attorney representing Shanahan. Anderson, who specializes in representing alleged victims of clergy abuse, expressed disappointment at Thursday's statement.
"This diocese has a long and quite ugly history of not protecting the kids and choosing not to believe them and choosing to protect the offenders," Anderson said. "I had hoped that they had learned and gotten better. This is evidence that nothing has changed."
But Delaney noted Burnett is no longer in ministry. "To me, that is a very strong indication that we are protecting children," he said. "He has no access to children, as far as the church is concerned."
Former Joliet Diocese Bishop Joseph Imesch, who retired in May, had been accused of protecting allegedly abusive priests. Victims alleged Imesch transferred some accused priests to new parishes, blocked police investigations and intimidated victims and their families with church lawyers.
Just months before Imesch retired, hundreds of pages of files, including a deposition he gave in a sex-abuse lawsuit filed by Anderson, were made public. In the deposition, he conceded he allowed at least four priests to continue in ministry after receiving credible allegations against them.
Imesch said at his retirement that he did not believe he had been portrayed in an "honest and accurate" way by the media. He said he might have handled sex-abuse claims differently now than he did decades ago, before he knew much about the issue.
Anderson said he was troubled by the "not credible" finding in his client's case in part because a second man made similar allegations against Burnett.
"I know enough about it to know that it's very similar," he said of the allegations by the second man, who is not represented by Anderson.
The second man, according to the diocesan statement, alleged he was sexually abused once in 1983 while a parishioner at the Mokena church. His attorney informed the diocese of the accusations in July 2006, the statement said.
He is expected to sue the diocese, which plans to "have the court system determine credibility," the statement said.
Meanwhile, the diocese has notified Will County prosecutors of the allegations.
"We have several cases that the diocese has referred to us, most with allegations that are 20-plus years old, all of which are under review at this point," said Charles Pelkie, spokesman for State's Atty. James Glasgow.
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