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  Bishop Says He Knew of Scandal

By Joseph Sjostrom and Rob Karwath
Chicago Tribune
August 22, 1987

The auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet said Friday that he confronted a west suburban priest about his relationship with a 14- year-old girl more than a year before the priest was arrested for sexually abusing her.

But the official, Bishop Roger L. Kaffer, said the priest, Rev. Edward Stefanich, denied that he and the girl were sexually involved. Bishop Kaffer said he was satisfied with Father Stefanich's denial and put the allegations "out of my mind" until Feb. 5, when the girl's mother told him that Father Stefanich had asked to marry her daughter.

Bishop Kaffer disputed the girl's statement that her parents had gone to the diocese six months before the priest's arrest.

Father Stefanich, priest of St. Scholastica Roman Catholic Church in Woodridge, was arrested Feb. 13 and charged with two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

On Thursday, Father Stefanich, 48, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of criminal sexual abuse against the girl and was sentenced to six months in jail and one year of probation. As part of his plea agreement, Father Stefanich also resigned from the priesthood and agreed to forfeit the 16 guns that police found hidden in furniture throughout the church rectory.

Charges that Joliet diocese officials knew far in advance about Father Stefanich's relationship with the girl, without taking action, came out during Thursday's sentencing.

Assistant Du Page County State's Atty. Brian Telander told Circuit Judge John J. Nelligan that had the case gone to trial church Deacon James Monahan would have testified that he relayed information about Father Stefanich and the girl to the diocese as early as February, 1986.

Outside court, the girl, now 16, said her parents had reported Father Stefanich to the diocese in August or September, 1986, after the priest had asked their permission to marry her. The girl said that her parents demanded that Father Stefanich be transferred out of the St. Scholastica parish but that diocese officials did nothing.

Bishop Kaffer said Friday that his appointment book showed that he first met with the girl's mother Feb. 5, and that he was the only top diocesan official to have met with her parents. Before that meeting, he said, church officials had only heard a rumor that Father Stefanich was sexually involved with the girl and did not have enough information to transfer him or go to police.

Bishop Kaffer said he first heard allegations about Father Stefanich's relationship with the girl in December, 1985, from Monahan, a deacon at St. Dominic's parish, Bolingbrook, and a psychologist for Catholic Charities. Bishop Kaffer said Monahan called him and reported that a girl he was counseling had said one of her girlfriends was "seeing" Father Stefanich.

Bishop Kaffer said Monahan told him that the girl said her girlfriend was riding home from her Catholic school with Father Stefanich and also had her tuition paid by the priest. Bishop Kaffer said Monahan also told him that the girl said her girlfriend and Father Stefanich "had fun" together.

"The deacon and I wondered whether that could imply sexual activity," Bishop Kaffer said, "but we didn't know. It could have implied going to the zoo together."

Telander, chief of the Du Page County state's attorney's criminal division, said in court Thursday that the information Monahan relayed to the diocese was more specific. Monahan told officials that his patient had seen the girl and Father Stefanich kissing and holding hands, Telander said.

Bishop Kaffer said that he confronted Father Stefanich about the allegations and that Father Stefanich denied them.

"At that time I told him that if he was doing anything, giving her rides and any such allegations, he must stop immediately," Bishop Kaffer said.

He said he was not concerned that Father Stefanich was paying the girl's tuition, a practice he said is common at Catholic schools.

Bishop Kaffer said he was satisfied with Father Stefanich's denial and that he put all the allegations against the priest "out of my mind" until Feb. 5, when he met with the girl's mother.

Of the girl's charges that her parents met with church officials before Feb. 5, Bishop Kaffer said, "I truly admire this girl and have great concerns for her spiritually, but I certainly can understand if she is confused on the chronology."

Outside court Thursday, the girl described the diocesan handling of the matter as "terrible." She said church officials "said they would warn him. . . . They offered him a parish in Joliet, but he didn't take it," she said.

Bishop Kaffer said diocesan officials had considered transferring Father Stefanich to a Joliet church in June, 1986. But he said the transfer was unrelated to the allegations about Father Stefanich that Monahan had relayed six months earlier.

"There was no connection between the two," Bishop Kaffer said. "A pastor had retired from a parish in Joliet, and Father Stefanich was simply among those who was offered that parish."

Diocese officials considered Father Stefanich because the Joliet church and his Woodridge church were the diocese's only "perpetual adoration" churches, in which worshipers may pray 24 hours a day, Bishop Kaffer said. Diocese officials thought Father Stefanich was a good candidate for the Joliet parish because he was used to having his church open 24 hours, Bishop Kaffer said.

Telander said during Thursday's hearing that Father Stefanich hired the girl to work for the parish in 1985. He said the priest then began fondling the girl and telling her he loved her and wanted to marry her.

The girl's mother learned of the priest's activities after Father Stefanich went to the family's home and asked for permission to marry her, Telander said. The mother refused.

Telander said the first explicit sexual contact between the priest and the girl occurred Aug. 23, 1986, at a Woodridge apartment occupied by the victim's aunt, for which St. Scholastica parish was paying $450 a month rent. The second occasion was on Aug. 30 in Father Stefanich's room in the St. Scholastica rectory, Telander said.

CORRECTION: Additional material published Aug. 25, 1987:

Corrections and clarifications

- A headline in the Aug. 22 Tribune incorrectly implied that a bishop in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet knew about the sexual relationship between a parish priest and a 14-year-old girl at the time it was going on. As was reported in the story, Auxiliary Bishop Roger L. Kaffer knew only that some kind of relationship between the two had been rumored. Bishop Kaffer acknowledged that he confronted the priest, Edward Stefanich, about the allegations, but said he was satisfied with the priest's denials of such a relationship. The Tribune regrets the error.

 
 

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