Watseka Residents Come to Accused Priest’s Defense
By Bob Okon
September 22, 2012
|The Rev. Lee Ryan is shown in this file photo. Supplied |
Talk to people in Watseka about the Rev. F. Lee Ryan, and you hear that he’s a great guy.
“Father is well liked by everybody in this town,” said Gary Cahoe while cutting hair at his downtown barber shop. “I don’t think you would hear anything bad about him.”
“He’s very caring,” said Lonnie Dirks, bereavement, community outreach and crisis intervention coordinator for Iroquois Memorial Hospice. She has worked with some of the same shut-ins who Ryan has seen as a priest during his 20 years as a pastor at St. Edmund’s Parish in Watseka.
“He’s fun. That’s one reason everyone likes him,” Dirks said. “He’s very positive. You ask him to be somewhere, and he’s there.”
“Just an absolute regular guy,” said Roy Baier. As a funeral director in Watseka, Baier has known Ryan for 17 years and said he makes a funeral easy. “He was so good at officiating and ministry.”
Ryan stopped officiating more than two years ago when he was removed as pastor under the cloud of an accusation that he had a sexual relationship in the 1970s with a teenage boy. But he is still a familiar face in Watseka, attending church at St. Edmund’s and dining with friends at local restaurants.
What might surprise people who know Ryan well is that the man who says that when he was 14 he had a sexual relationship with the priest still sees him in much the same way as they do.
Told that the man they call Father Lee is well liked and highly regarded in Watseka, his accuser expressed many of the same thoughts they have about Ryan.
“He was very amiable, extremely personable, funny, outreaching, lots of funny jokes and caring,” said the man, now 52 and wanting to keep his identity private. “He had a lot of gifts.”
A tangled issue
What happened back then when Ryan was a member of the faculty at Providence Catholic High School and his accuser was a student is becoming a very tangled issue today for Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, the Diocese of Joliet and even the Vatican.
Conlon on Tuesday removed Ryan from his ministry a second time, reversing a decision he made last week. Conlon on Sept. 12 said Ryan could return to limited ministry with home-bound parishioners in the Watseka area. When the bishop announced that decision, he pointed to a finding from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that Ryan was not guilty based on a church law in place in the 1970s that outlined discipline for priests who had sexual relations with minors under 16.
Conlon would not say whether the accusations were found to be credible or not, and the decision left the impression that Ryan got another chance because of a technicality.
The decision drew immediate criticism from a victims’ advocacy group named Supporters Network of those Abused by Priest.
But Ryan’s supporters in Watseka were not happy either.
“I think most of us believe father deserved more than he’s gotten,” Cahoe said Monday when it looked like Ryan at least was going to become an active priest again.
Cahoe and others at St. Edmund’s, a parish that includes nearby St. Joseph’s Mission church in Crescent City, also believe that parishioners deserve better. Then-Bishop J. Peter Sartain came to St. Edmund’s in May 2010 to inform parishioners that Ryan was being removed as pastor.
No bishop has been back since, Cahoe noted.
“I think most of us feel like we’ve been thrown under the bus,” he said. “We just want some more explanation.”
Cahoe joked that he “will give the bishop a free haircut if he would show up in Watseka.”
Support for Ryan
But a more serious note was sounded by two parishioners who had been working actively on Ryan’s behalf.
Parishioners Andy Guimond and Dick Arie released a statement on what looked then to be Ryan’s limited return to the ministry. The statement printed in the Iroquois County Times-Republic called decisions made by three bishops in the Joliet diocese on Ryan to be “questionable at best.”
“There is a voice that speaks for Father Lee, his innocence, and his integrity as a priest and a man,” the statement went on to say. “That voice is the voice of the parishioners of St. Edmund’s and St. Joseph’s parish. To this very day the Diocese of Joliet refuses to hear it. Our day will come, the truth will be heard, and someone in Joliet will have to be held accountable.”
Getting to the truth of what happened hasn’t been easy. Nor has the diocese been able to clear things up much in the past two weeks.
Stan Molter, a city of Watseka employee, is Catholic but is a member of another parish. His in-laws were at St. Edmund’s when Ryan was removed as pastor.
“They just loved him,” Molter said. “They thought he was a wonderful priest. You can imagine the shock when that came out. They think, can this be the man they’ve known all this time?”
That question remains unclear more than two years later and maybe more so because of the ruling from Rome.
“It’s not clear in my mind,” said Molter, “as to what the church is saying.”