The Chicago Archdiocese does not publicly identify deceased priests accused of sexual abuse. Here’s why one suburban deacon is trying to change that.
By Elyssa Cherney
October 7, 2019
|Terry Neary stands in front of the St. Ethelreda Parish rectory in Chicago, where he says a priest sexually abused him when he was a boy. Neary is now a deacon at a suburban Catholic church.|
Photo by Jose M. Osorio
|Terry Neary says he was abused by a priest in the 1970s in the rectory of St. Ethelreda Parish in Chicago.|
Photo by Jose M. Osorio
The first time it happened, the priest offered Terry Neary a cookie.
Neary, then an eighth grade student, was working an after-school job in the rectory of St. Ethelreda in Chicago. He followed the Roman Catholic priest into the kitchen, where, Neary has alleged, the 75-year-old man sexually abused him that day and a few more times in 1971.
The Archdiocese of Chicago later determined the abuse was “possible," according to its own records, but it has not added the priest’s name to a list on its website that identifies nearly 80 clergy members believed to have abused children.
That’s because of a controversial church policy that doesn’t require full investigations into allegations made against deceased priests. By the time Neary first reported his abuse to the archdiocese in 2001, the priest, the Rev. William R. Leyhane, had been dead for two decades.
“I knew (the abuse) was wrong, and I was just successful in trying not to think about it, so I put it way in the back of my head,” Neary, now a 62-year-old deacon at St. Isidore Parish in Bloomingdale, said during a recent interview.
The archdiocese has defended its longstanding policy, noting that deceased priests no longer pose a risk to children and can’t respond to accusations that might be false. But advocacy groups, abuse survivors and former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who began a probe into clergy abuse last year, have criticized the practice, saying it re-traumatizes victims and fails to hold church leadership accountable.
"Failing to investigate deceased or resigned clergy ignores both the impact such a decision has on survivors seeking closure and that an investigation might lead other survivors to come forward,” Madigan wrote in a December status report before leaving office. “Failing to investigate also makes it impossible to determine whether other clergy, including those who are alive and involved with the church, helped conceal the abuse.”
Madigan’s successor, Kwame Raoul, is continuing the investigation but has provided few updates about its progress. Raoul and Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich met behind closed doors in August to discuss the probe, representatives for both parties confirmed. The move drew criticism from two local advocacy organizations that questioned why details from the meeting weren’t made public.
Now, archdiocese officials say they are working with Raoul’s office to determine if changes should be made to the way it handles cases involving deceased priests.
“We had reasons for doing what we did, which were in good faith," said John O’Malley, a former archdiocese legal director who still works with the church and spoke on its behalf in a recent interview. “We weren’t trying to hide anything. There’s a fairness issue — if a priest is deceased, he can’t defend himself."
The issue is addressed differently across the state. Each of the six Catholic dioceses in Illinois has its own policy for investigating allegations made against deceased priests and determining whether to publish the names online.
The Diocese of Joliet, for example, denotes on its list whether an allegation was received after death, while the Chicago Archdiocese typically lists deceased priests only if the allegations were deemed credible while they were alive. In most cases, names are publicized only after an internal church review process determines that an allegation is substantiated.
The archdiocese used to send all allegations made against deceased priests to its Independent Review Board, which advises the leadership of the archdiocese on how to address sexual misconduct, but stopped doing so, said Anne Maselli, a spokeswoman.
“The Board later decided to confine its investigations to priests who were alive when allegations were made,” Maselli said. “This limitation is consistent with the Board’s charge to make recommendations as to the accused’s fitness for ministry and danger to children. Both questions are moot in the case of an accused (priest) who is deceased.”
Though Neary, a psychologist, disagrees with the archdiocese’s approach, he is a leader in his own church. Last year, Neary was ordained as a deacon by the Diocese of Joliet, meaning he can perform certain pastoral duties, such as baptisms, but is not a priest. All the while, he has continued his fight to have Leyhane’s name added to the archdiocese’s list, saying it would provide him a long-awaited sense of justice.
“It’s a validation that other victims got,” Neary said. “It’s the church taking responsibility and accountability — that’s very important."
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Neary’s large Irish Catholic family spent countless Sundays in prayer at St. Ethelreda parish in the Gresham neighborhood.
Already an altar boy, Neary was excited when he turned 13 and landed a job at the church, answering phones in the rectory. People would trickle in and out, but for the most part, Neary says, the rectory was empty. Except for the priest.
One day in 1971, Neary says, Leyhane invited him into the kitchen for some cookies. Leyhane took Neary to the back of the room, where he groped and kissed him, according to an account Neary first documented with the archdiocese in 2001. The alleged abuse happened two or three times more times over a one-month period, Neary says. It stopped when Neary started to give Leyhane “the cold shoulder” and "declined his invitations,” Neary recalls.
The archdiocese closed the parish in 2007, though St. Ethelreda Catholic School continues to operate.
For years, Neary never told anyone about the abuse he says he experienced. Neary said he tried to bury the memories as his family remained deeply involved in the church, and he attended seminaries for high school and college.
It wasn’t until 1980, when Neary was studying for a doctorate in clinical psychology at Loyola University Chicago, that he finally shared his story with a couple of therapists. After that, he decided to tell his parents.
“My dad said, ‘I always knew there was something about that guy that I didn’t like,’” Neary recalled.
His parents, who are now deceased, never broached the subject again, Neary said.
In 2001, as public awareness about clergy sexual abuse was on the rise, Neary filed a report with the archdiocese that detailed his allegations, according to records provided by Neary. During a meeting that October with Ralph Bonaccorsi, then director of the Victim Assistance Ministry, Neary described what happened to him through tears, the records said.
“Neary expressed equally intense feelings of anger over his perception that the Church seemed to minimize the reality of child molestation in the past and worries that the Church might not be taking adequate steps for prevention,” Bonaccorsi wrote in a memo detailing the meeting. Bonaccorsi has since died.
The following year, Neary received a letter from the archdiocese stating that the Independent Review Board “found it was possible that sexual misconduct with a minor had occurred,” in his case, according to documents provided by Neary.
The archdiocese also awarded several scholarships to eighth grade students at St. Ethelreda School after Neary made the request, saying it would help him heal, according to the records.
Neary said he took the letter and scholarships as proof that his claims were substantiated.
But according to the archdiocese, Neary’s allegations were not substantiated, though his case was twice reviewed by the board. Names are added to the list only when the review board finds the allegations credible.
Leah McCulskey, director for the archdiocese’s Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review, explained how the archdiocese handles sexual abuse allegations today. The process differs depending on whether a case involves living or deceased clergy.
In both situations, McCulskey said, she will try to conduct an interview with the accuser and write a summary of the allegations. For cases involving living clergy, McCulskey will also examine the priest’s personnel file, interview possible witnesses and talk to the accused in order to compile an investigative packet that is then sent to the review board.
For cases involving deceased clergy, McCulskey interviews only the accuser. And the written summary is not typically sent to the review board for any determination, McCulskey said.
“There’s no issue of fitness for ministry or risk to children in the case of a deceased priest," O’Malley added. “It’s as simple as that.”
Today, more than 150 dioceses and religious orders publish their own lists of credibly accused clergy members, according to the Boston-based advocacy website BishopAccountability.org.
Many of the first lists were released in response to lawsuits seeking access to the previously undisclosed information, according to the website. But last year, after an explosive grand jury report in Pennsylvania renewed attention on the sexual abuse scandal, more dioceses voluntarily compiled and distributed online lists.
In Illinois, Madigan found that only the Chicago Archdiocese and the Diocese of Joliet posted online lists before she started her investigation, according to the December status report. The other dioceses “did not take the basic step of publishing a comprehensive list of clergy who had been ‘credibly’ accused until the (attorney general’s office) became involved," the report states. "Even now, these lists, for the most part, remain difficult to locate on Illinois Dioceses’ websites.”
The archdiocese first published a list, consisting of 55 names, in 2006 following a lawsuit, according to media reports from the time.
In November, after discussions with Madigan, the archdiocese, for the first time, added the names of four priests who were deceased when the allegations surfaced.
Allegations against those priests were substantiated at a time when the board did accept cases involving dead clergy, Maselli said, and were included on the website in an effort to be transparent.
“The argument for putting priests on the list who are dead is so people can know, who might feel they’re the only victim, that they aren’t — and that’s a powerful argument," O’Malley told the Tribune in March.
For Neary, any change can’t come soon enough. But he said his attempts to reform the policy using his own case have left him emotionally drained and disappointed.
The biggest blow came this summer when Neary learned his abuse allegations were never officially substantiated, even though they had reached the review board, which found that the misconduct was “possible."
“I felt like I just got kicked in the stomach,” Neary said, recalling his reaction to the news. “It was very upsetting.”
Records the archdiocese subsequently provided to Neary show the board was reluctant to substantiate the allegations because Leyhane was deceased.
Cardinal Francis George, who led the archdiocese at the time, wrote in a memo that he agreed the “Board’s concern to protect (Leyhane’s) good name and reputation.”
George, according to the records, then asked the review board for a more precise ruling. When the board responded several months later, it said there was no new or contradictory information so it was affirming the original decision “that it was possible that sexual misconduct with a minor had occurred.”
A lack of eyewitnesses and physical evidence might also make reviewing these cases difficult, but the board’s burden of proof is relatively low, especially compared to requirements in criminal proceedings. The board can substantiate a case if “there is reasonable cause to believe” the abuse occurred, McCulskey said.
In all cases, though, the archdiocese will try to help victims who say they were abused by long-deceased priests, said archdiocese spokeswoman Paula Waters. The archdiocese will assist in finding counseling services, and, in some cases, it might also enter into financial settlements with alleged victims, Waters said.
“We don’t say, ‘Sorry, the guy is dead, so we’re not going to pay you anything,'” Waters said. “If there is reason to believe that something happened, we will provide victim assistance and there are settlements made. They are just not on the website, because that’s not the way the website was set up, but that may change.”
Neary has not pursued a lawsuit but remains in regular contact with the archdiocese about his case. He said the process has been painful, but he continues to be steadfast in his faith. On a recent day, while wearing a black polo shirt emblazoned with a cross, Neary sobbed while describing his spirituality.
“I’m pro-church. ... It’s a great institution, and it’s not just an institution, it’s the body of Christ,” Neary said. "Every organization needs continuous quality improvement.
"My relationship is with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. My faith is in them and their unwavering love. ... So that’s all that matters and we’re just humans, just trying promulgate his word, and sometimes we don’t do it perfectly.”