Standing before parishioners in his historic Joliet church, the Rev. Peter Jankowski said years of internal conflict had brought him to this difficult moment. In an emotional homily, the parish priest publicly blew the whistle on his diocese for alleged past failures that he said put children at potential risk.
Jankowski delivered the homily three times two Sundays ago, including once in Spanish for his multicultural congregation. Before he left the pulpit, he asked members at St. Patrick's Catholic Church to pray for him as he embarks on a public crusade — including a direct appeal to Pope Francis.
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His homily did not cite any specific examples of abuse. Rather, in church documents later obtained by the Tribune, Jankowski for years has complained that his retired predecessor showed lax enforcement 10 years ago of the U.S. bishops' 2002 charter regarding child sexual abuse. In a September letter to the pope, Jankowski said that his superiors, including Joliet Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, failed to act upon his repeated complaints over the years to ask the retired priest to stop interfering in his ministry.
Diocese officials noted an independent firm has found the diocese compliant with the charter each year since 2003, when it began annual audits.
The dispute pits a first-time parish priest against a veteran cleric so loved that he has an honorary street designation outside the church. In a larger sense, it underscores the difference between an old-school approach and the modern church's promise to be more transparent and vigilant.
Jankowski arrived at St. Patrick's in summer 2006. He was 41 and fulfilling his first assignment leading a church as a pastor. It was four years after the Roman Catholic Church's promise to better protect children following a national priest sex abuse scandal.
Jankowski said he discovered through post-charter era audits that his predecessor, the Rev. James Lennon, had failed to ensure proper criminal background checks were conducted on more than 60 church members and volunteers who had access to children within the now-shuttered parish school. Several of the volunteers had criminal histories, the priest said.
Lennon retired a decade ago but still is active in the community. Jankowski maintains, given the retired priest's alleged violation of diocese policies, that he should not be allowed to continue to preside over baptisms, weddings and funerals or celebrate Mass while filling in as needed at neighboring churches.
Documents showed members of St. Patrick's over the last decade have celebrated sacraments elsewhere so that Lennon could preside.
Besides the background checks, which the diocese required, Jankowski complained that Lennon, before his 2006 retirement, allowed another priest, Edward Poff, to improperly participate in certain church functions. Poff is one of about 35 publicly named diocesan priests against whom credible allegations of child abuse were made, according to the diocese. Long after Poff was removed from his post, he regularly attended meetings for a senior citizens' club in St. Patrick's school gymnasium, church correspondence shows.
Jankowski appealed last year to Bishop Conlon to force Lennon to stop celebrating sacraments, or at least write a public apology letter admitting his alleged lax enforcement of the child-protection charter. In a July 6 response letter to Jankowski, Conlon said Lennon declined and that his continued community involvement as a retired priest is appropriate. The bishop instead encouraged Jankowski to try to get along with Lennon.
Conlon was installed as Joliet bishop in July 2011, long after Jankowski first raised concerns about Lennon's leadership. Conlon is a past chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, having served in that role for three years beginning in 2011.
In his letter last summer, Conlon encouraged Jankowski to handle his issues with Lennon privately and admitted full compliance of the bishops' charter did not come right away for many dioceses.
"Given that ten years have passed, it seems to me that it would not be of benefit to anyone, including your parishioners, to address publicly any apparent insufficiencies in Father Lennon's leadership," the bishop's letter said. "While it's unfortunate, I know that in many parishes in many dioceses, it took a few years after the adoption of the (charter) for parishes, especially those with schools and large religious education programs, to arrive at full compliance."
In September, Jankowski wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking for help. "I implore you to act so that I do not have to make these letters public," he wrote.
Jankowski recently received a four-sentence letter back from a top official in the Vatican that acknowledged his concerns had been noted. On Jan. 10, two days after his homily, Jankowski received an email from Conlon's executive assistant informing him that due to "unresolved tensions that the St. Patrick community might have about diocesan leadership," it might be best to postpone the bishop's planned parish visit, scheduled for late September.
"It strikes me that an attempt at a pastoral visit from the Bishop may cause more harm than good at this point in time," Conlon's assistant wrote, according to a copy of the email obtained by the Tribune.
On Tuesday, diocese spokesman Edward Flavin said it was Jankowski who initiated the idea of postponing the visit.
In response to Jankowski's criticism, diocese officials cited the annual audits that found it is compliant with the bishops' charter.
Furthermore, in the first week of this year, the diocese has trained 108 new clerics, employees and volunteers on "ways to make and maintain a safe environment for youth and vulnerable adults," Flavin said.
"With regards to Father Lennon, he has been and remains in good standing with the Diocese of Joliet, where he has been a priest for over 50 years," Flavin said. "He is a very popular priest and receives many requests to be the presider for weddings and funerals even though he has been retired for a number of years."
Lennon did not respond to messages left on his phone or with diocese staff.
St. Patrick's, with 1,300 families, is the oldest parish in the diocese, which serves 655,000 Catholics in seven counties. Jankowski declined to comment and said he preferred to let his Jan. 8 homily "speak for itself." Besides delivering it three times in church, he later emailed it to the larger church community.
"I have struggled with these issues for years and, at the advice of members from my parish council and staff, I chose to remain silent while behind the scenes helping this parish deal with issues that might not have been considered abuses in the past, but in hindsight certainly are considered as such today," Jankowski said in his homily.
"By acting in this manner, I have come to find out that I, too, have been in neglect of child protection issues to a degree, since I have not made these issues public. Making these issues public has been a difficult burden for me to bear, so recently I have consulted religious leaders and canon lawyers across the country as to what next steps I had to take to protect the vulnerable in our community. ... One was a canon lawyer, who instructed that that if I continue to remain silent on child protection issues, I could be held just as culpable as those who seriously violated the charter of the bishops."
This is not the first time Jankowski, who was ordained in 1996, has spoken out publicly. In 2013, after a failed immigration detention center was proposed in Joliet, Jankowski appeared before the City Council and slammed the project as racist and akin to slavery or internment camps. In addition to his work at St. Patrick's, Jankowski has celebrated Mass with inmates at the nearby Stateville Correctional Center since 2010.
Marci Hamilton, an expert on clergy child abuse issues, said while many priests across the country have brought concerns to their superiors, few have taken the additional step that Jankowski did in making such a public statement.
"In my view, that's what makes him a real hero in the system," said Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, a research and advocacy group based at the University of Pennsylvania.
Heather Domanski is identified in the diocese documents as the parish office manager who in 2006 and 2007 audited all parish school volunteers, from parents serving as room monitors and field trip supervisors to church members using the school gym to play basketball, and discovered the backgrounds of more than 60 people were not checked properly as required under diocesan policy.
"I was a real stickler for dotting my i's and crossing my t's because I knew this was really important," said Domanski, who left the diocese several years ago and is a registered nurse in Milwaukee. "I started asking more questions. ... We did what we were supposed to do. The diocese was remiss in doing anything about it and the reason it took so long to come out is because they swept it under the rug, and they still are."
Background checks are a "no brainer," said Hamilton, the national canon law expert, who found Conlon's response to Jankowski surprising given his past national leadership role. She agreed, though, with Conlon's assessment that it took a few years for many dioceses to be in full compliance with the charter. She said Jankowski's actions were bold, especially given the power their leadership holds regarding parish assignments and pension issues.
"The hierarchy has all sorts of power to keep priests silent," Hamilton said. "There's a lot of ways that bishops can control what priests do."
Longtime St. Patrick's parishioner Cindy Harvey, who serves as parish council president, said Jankowski has the council's support.
"I don't think parishioners know the depth of what Father Pete has been going through," she said. "It takes a lot of guts to stand up for what's right."