City Continues to Stand by Hiring of Priest Accused of Sexual Abuse
October 4, 2013
Seven years ago, the Archdiocese of Chicago removed the popular pastor of a southwest suburban church after he was accused of molesting two brothers.
But Burbank Mayor Harry Klein thought the Rev. Robert Stepek was innocent. So, in 2007, he recommended the priest for a different position of authority: Police Department counselor, helping victims who sometimes included children. Stepek got the job.
|Burbank Mayor Harry Klein, shown, said he approved of hiring the Rev. Robert Stepek in 2007 as a police resource officer because he "trusted in the goodness" of Stepek. The priest was asked by the Chicago Archdiocese in 2006 to step down from his Burbank parish after the archdiocese found reason to believe two brothers who had accused Stepek of sexually abusing them in the early 1980s. (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)|
To this day, the mayor and some in the community defend the move, while others question the wisdom of hiring a person accused of such an offense to work in a police department.
"I just don't understand why you would hire someone (accused of) something like that to work with the public," said Linda Beck, a Burbank resident who occasionally attends St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, where Stepek was pastor for eight years. "I'm disappointed in their judgment."
The hiring — which came at a time of increasing public furor over the church's handling of molestation allegations — illustrates the often passionate and conflicting reactions in a community after such accusations surface against a beloved priest.
Throughout the ordeal, Stepek maintained his innocence and filed an unsuccessful defamation suit against his accusers. Meanwhile, the archdiocese determined there was "reasonable cause" to believe the sexual abuse accusations and privately settled the case out of court.
The archdiocese recently announced that a special Vatican council could not find sufficient evidence during two canonical trials to prove Stepek had molested minors. It is rare for such findings to be made public because the trials are privately held.
But the church also said the Vatican council found that he "engaged in behaviors inappropriate for a priest" and put restrictions on his duties. The archdiocese declined to elaborate.
Stepek, 58, plans to retire as a priest but still works for the Police Department.
He declined to comment for this story, saying his church superiors told him not to speak to the media. An archdiocese spokeswoman said that wasn't true.
The mayor said he didn't need to wait for the Vatican to issue a ruling because he "trusted in the goodness" of Stepek. Plus, the city needed someone for the position and Stepek's talents filled the bill, he added.
"You have to trust something in your life. You have to have some degree of belief in something," Klein said. "We concurred that Bob should be given a chance."
'What he stands for'
In May 2006 — as Stepek celebrated his 25th anniversary as priest — one man alleged privately to his priest that Stepek had molested him and his brother in the early 1980s when Stepek was serving at St. Symphorosa parish on Chicago's Southwest Side.
The priest reported it to the archdiocese. Shortly after, Cardinal Francis George asked Stepek to temporarily step down from the pulpit at St. Albert the Great as the archdiocese reviewed the claims.
By November, the archdiocese's independent review board completed its "inquiry regarding the allegations against Fr. Stepek and determined that there was reasonable cause to suspect that sexual abuse of minors occurred," according to an archdiocese statement at the time.
That same month, Stepek took the rare action of suing his accusers in Cook County Circuit Court for defamation. He alleged that the accusations were false and that the brothers were retaliating against him. One brother was upset that Stepek did not write him a letter of recommendation, and the other was angry that Stepek didn't pay him for partial work he performed at St. Symphorosa, according to the priest's lawsuit.
The brothers countersued Stepek and the archdiocese. Eventually the courts dismissed Stepek's complaint, and the two men dropped their suit and reached a settlement with the archdiocese.
No criminal charges were filed against Stepek, said a spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office, who added that a previous administration had reviewed the case.
When the Police Department created a community resource officer position in 2007, Klein, a longtime parishioner of St. Albert the Great, contacted Stepek and encouraged him to apply. He said he didn't believe the allegations against the priest.
"The man was here in our community. He knew many of the people; we knew him," the mayor said. "It's not as though you made a decision in a vacuum. You know the person; you know what he stands for."
The Burbank police chief and other members of the department interviewed Stepek for the part-time post.
Police Chief Bruce Radowicz, also a St. Albert parishioner, said the department did a criminal background investigation and found nothing. Officers also contacted the archdiocese about the sexual abuse allegations, but the archdiocese did not share any of its evidence, he said.
"I can't just deal in what-ifs and maybes. Give me something concrete, and I'm in," the police chief said of the accusations against the priest. "We vetted this thing the best we could and with what we had to work with at the time. There was nothing there."
The suburb hired Stepek in October 2007, around the time the abuse case was sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican for a final review and ruling.
The police job pays about $32,000 annually but does not come with benefits or a pension, town officials said.
A year and a half later, in May 2009, as the Vatican investigation continued, another man came forward and alleged that Stepek fondled him in 1987 in a car outside his family's South Side home. He sued Stepek, but the case was later dropped.
During the first canonical trial, the Vatican did not find sufficient evidence against Stepek, but the archdiocese appealed, attorneys for the accusers said. This past May, the Vatican made the same ruling but said Stepek had acted inappropriately, according to the archdiocese.
The Vatican is not required to release its findings, and it is not clear whether the ruling in Stepek's case is common or unusual, Vatican experts said.
As part of his duties in the Police Department, Stepek does well-being checks on the elderly, follows up on domestic-related calls and trains landlords on how to do background checks on potential tenants.
He also counsels grieving families, sometimes with children, at the police station, the chief said. Stepek does not wear a badge or carry a gun and sometimes drives an unmarked squad car, he added.
No one has complained about Stepek, town leaders said. But one of Stepek's accusers told the Tribune he didn't understand why the priest was hired, especially when the archdiocese found the allegations credible.
"You're opening yourself up for trouble and lawsuits," said the accuser, who the Tribune is not naming because he is an alleged victim.
The city's attorney did not think there would be a problem hiring Stepek, the mayor said. But employment experts contacted by the Tribune noted that most companies would shy away from hiring a candidate accused of a serious offense.
Employers don't want bad press and don't want to be held liable if a candidate does something criminal or inappropriate while on the job, said David Ritter, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP who represents public and private companies in all areas of labor and employment law.
"I would find it odd that you'd find a lawyer that said, 'Yeah, go ahead and hire the person,'" Ritter said of a job candidate who had been accused of sexual abuse. "Common sense is, the employer will just find someone else who is qualified. That's the reality."
The troubling part is that government, which is accountable to the public, would hire someone for the position who was accused of abuse, said Marci Hamilton, a canon law expert and professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.
But Stepek's supporters said they see the Vatican's recent finding as vindication.
"He was a good priest," said Dave Barry, 57, a Burbank resident who attends St. Albert. "I never thought he did anything wrong."
Some hope that Stepek will become the Police Department chaplain, a move that the archdiocese must approve.
"We're not afraid of letting him work with the youth. We're not afraid of letting him work with the seniors," the mayor said. "We're not afraid of letting him work with anyone."
Tribune reporters Joseph Ryan and Manya Brachear Pashman contributed.