Joliet Diocese Says Man’s Priest Sex Abuse Claims Credible, He Wants Apology

By Jon Seidel
Chicago Sun-Times
November 4, 2011

The old St. Mary's Church in Mokena

Dan Shanahan said he thanked God when he heard the news. He’d waited on it for years.

It came while he was in New Lenox last year, watching football and visiting family. His attorney called to tell him he had a letter from the Diocese of Joliet. Shanahan asked him to read it.

“The truth is here,” Shanahan said when the call ended. “It finally came. Five years later.”

Shanahan leveled serious accusations more than five years ago against the Rev. James Burnett, a former local priest.

Shanahan said Burnett abused him sexually in the late 1970s and early 1980s while Shanahan was an altar boy at St. Mary Catholic Church in Mokena.

In 2007, the Diocese said Shanahan’s claims weren’t credible. And a DuPage County judge dismissed his lawsuit against the Diocese because it came too long after the alleged abuse.

But last fall, Bishop J. Peter Sartain penned the letter Shanahan’s attorney read to him over the phone. It said the Diocesan Review Committee had reversed its previous ruling.

“Your allegations have been substantiated and are credible,” Sartain wrote to Shanahan.

Feeling vindicated, Shanahan said he kept the news to himself for nearly a year because he was waiting for the Diocese to make the revelation public. That didn’t happen, but the Diocese did confirm the authenticity of Sartain’s letter this week after a phone call from Sun-Times Media.

“The more I think about it,” Shanahan said, “how could I be surprised after what they did to me?”

Diocese spokesman Doug Delaney said the church wouldn’t make such an announcement out of respect for victims’ privacy. That’s why it never mentioned the reversal in Shanahan’s case. Sartain’s letter also offered money to Shanahan, though neither side would say how much was paid.

“We thought we’d addressed all the issues concerned, and we thought this was resolved,” Delaney said.

Burnett still denies ever abusing Shanahan. His attorney, Stuart Bressler, said Burnett was allowed to attend the review committee’s meeting. But he did so without a lawyer.

“He wasn’t allowed to have an attorney present on something that’s going to brand him something one wouldn’t want to be branded,” Bressler said.

But Sartain’s letter said Shanahan’s case was only resubmitted to the review committee after “a new allegation came forward regarding Father Burnett.”

While the Diocese wouldn’t say what that allegation was, Delaney said “he’s never been back in ministry, and he never will.”

Still, Shanahan said a public apology would have been the right thing for the Diocese to do. He doesn’t hide well his anger toward his childhood parish, calling it “money hungry” and a “secret society.”

His lawsuit, filed in May 2006, said Burnett abused him from 1978 to 1982 while Shanahan was between ages 8 and 12. He said it happened in the confessional.

He also said he was taught as a boy church issues and scandals “were not to be disclosed to the public at large or to law enforcement.” He alleged the Diocese knew of Burnett’s abuse and transferred him between churches to conceal the priest’s behavior.

“They’re the ones trying to follow in Jesus’ ways,” Shanahan said, “and they’re doing just the opposite.”

Delaney declined to respond to such comments.

Burnett’s supporters didn’t hold back, though, when Shanahan first pointed the finger at their pastor. Parishioners leapt to his defense, telling reporters Burnett wasn’t capable of such abuse.

Shanahan said he received threatening e-mails, and his father found an angry letter on his truck. Burnett also defended himself in the church bulletin.

“I am innocent of all the accusations that have been made against me and I know that that innocence will prevail,” Burnett wrote.

By then, though, the Diocese had already placed Burnett on an administrative leave from which he’d never return. Other accusers were coming forward.

While it declared in March 2007 Shanahan’s claims lacked credibility, the Diocese said it couldn’t resolve the credibility of claims against Burnett made by David Rudofski, who filed a lawsuit against Burnett a few months later.

Shanahan’s brother, Tim Shanahan, filed his own lawsuit at the same time as his brother’s against another priest from St. Mary, the Rev. William Virtue. That case was also dismissed. But the brothers’ attorney, Marc Pearlman, said the Diocese found Tim Shanahan’s accusations credible.

Denying Dan Shanahan of that same ruling, he said, amounted to a “horrible revictimization.”

“That’s perhaps as bad, if not worse, than the victimization in the first place,” Pearlman said.

Sexual abuse victims often feel ashamed of what happened to them, he said, and blame themselves. Shanahan said he still struggles with the stigma that comes along with being abused.

But Shanahan still calls himself a Christian. He said his experiences as a boy didn’t shake his faith in God.

“I know it’s not his fault,” Shanahan said. “The one thing I learned just from being a Christian, you never question him. I never do.”



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