Couple Says Son Was Abused
Alleged Incident Happened in Romeoville in 1975
By Ted Slowik firstname.lastname@example.org
The Herald News
June 20, 2002
JOLIET — Outside a Will County courtroom Wednesday, an Indiana couple told a compelling story about how their son recently said he was abused by a priest at a high school seminary near Romeoville 27 years ago.
Jack and Carole Powers of Walkerton, Ind., had harsh words for Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch for the way the bishop responded when they reported the claim to him in April.
"The bishop should resign. Someone should get him out of there," Jack Powers said.
The couple said that on March 29, their son told them that he was abused in 1975 at age 16 by the Rev. Carroll Howlin, who taught at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. The alleged abuse happened at the seminary that spring and on a camping trip to Kentucky with three other boys that summer.
John Michael Powers, who goes by Mike, told his parents that the priest would manipulate boys into relationships by inviting them into his room at the seminary with offers of cigarettes, his mother said.
When the alleged abuse started, Howlin "told our son this was perfectly acceptable because this was how he was able to justify his celibacy, by having homosexual relationships with boys," Carole Powers said.
Jack Powers said the couple was devastated when their son told them. They contacted Imesch and met with him for 90 minutes on April 9.
The couple said they demanded Howlin be punished immediately, but that Imesch was reluctant to act until several days later when they said they were going to tell Will County prosecutors, which they later did.
Imesch on Wednesday disputed the couples' version of the meeting.
"I wasn't stonewalling them," Imesch said.
Imesch said he was in Peoria on April 10 and busy with other appointments that week.
"I was tied up for two days. I'm not going to work 24 hours a day," Imesch said.
Imesch contacted Lexington, Ky., Bishop J. Kendrick Williams and Howlin on April 12. Imesch allowed Howlin to say a farewell Mass on April 14 because there was no other priest available.
"I thought it would be impossible to find a replacement for a Sunday Mass in Appalachia," Imesch said.
Williams resigned as bishop June 11 after denying claims that he sexually abused three men who have sued the Kentucky diocese.
Another man in his 40s first reported a claim about Howlin several years ago. Imesch said Wednesday that the Joliet Diocese's review board evaluated the claim at the time and determined that Howlin was fit for ministry.
"We could not draw the conclusion for certain that Father Howlin was guilty," Imesch said.
The Powers family has retained local attorney Keith Aeschliman about filing a civil lawsuit. Their son met with Will County prosecutors around Memorial Day, they said. The other man who claims Howlin abused him met with prosecutors on April 22.
Unlike most priests accused of abusing youths years ago, there's still a chance that Howlin could be prosecuted. In Illinois, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse is suspended when the offender lives out of state. Howlin has ministered in rural Kentucky the past 25 years.
Representatives from the Will County state's attorney's office did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Jack Powers, who broke down in tears often during Wednesday's interview, said the family's No. 1 priority is to see their son's alleged abuser punished, and No. 2, to seek Imesch's resignation.
"He's a liar. He's disgusting. He's despicable. He's as arrogant as a person can be. He absolutely has no compassion for anybody," Jack Powers said.
"The bishop perpetuates sickness. To this day he allows these perverts to be out on the street," he said.
Their son Mike is the middle of their five children. Mike has two older sisters and two younger brothers. Today, he lives in California, is 44 years old, has been married to the same woman for 20 years and the father of five children.
The parents said Mike heard the calling to become a priest when he was in sixth grade. Mike finished high school at St. Charles Borromeo, and was approved to go to St. Meinrad, a college seminary in Indiana.
The Joliet Diocese's two auxiliary bishops, the Revs. Roger Kaffer and James Fitzgerald, both headed the Romeoville seminary at various times. The seminary closed in 1981 after years of declining enrollment and escalating expenses.
"We were providing a wonderful Catholic education to a handful of kids at enormous cost," Imesch said. "No one was going on to college seminaries."
Imesch questioned why victims didn't report the alleged abuse sooner. The Powers' son completed two years at the seminary after the incidents allegedly occurred, he pointed out.
Howlin allegedly threatened Mike that if he reported the alleged abuse, it would jeopardize his future at St. Meinrad, the couple said.
"It pains me that bishops don't understand the power that a priest has over a youngster, especially a seminarian," said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "That priest could blackball you not only out of a job, but the spiritual calling itself."
Instead of going to St. Meinrad, Mike returned to Addison, where the family lived at the time, and told his parents he no longer wanted to become a priest. He later joined the Army.
Many abuse victims live with their secrets for years, trying to block out painful memories as a way of coping with the experience. Many abuse survivors have talked about how church officials "revictimized" them by making them feel responsible for the incidents or using aggressive legal tactics.
Mike never explained why he abandoned his desire to become a priest, just that he no longer felt the calling. On Good Friday this year, he told his parents of the alleged abuse.
"Did you ever wonder why I didn't become a priest?" Carole Powers recalls her son asked. "I really believe I had the calling," he told her.
The couple said the pastor at their church, the Rev. Michael Winkowski of St. Patrick in Walkerton, Ind., has been "wonderful" in helping them deal with the experience of hearing their son was abused.
"Oh, I definitely believe them. I think it's more a matter of helping them to get others to believe them up there in Joliet," Winkowski said.
The other man who claims Howlin abused him told The Herald News in April about how teachers at the seminary "abused their own" and destroyed his dream of becoming a priest.
"I think that's the tragedy that goes along with this whole problem. Because of a few bad guys, the good ones were turned away. That's inexcusable," Winkowski said.
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