Flock Seeks Answers after Priest Ousted

By Paul Sloan
Chicago Tribune
September 5, 1993

To many parishioners at Incarnation Church in Palos Heights, Rev. Patrick O'Leary was a priest so dedicated to his congregation that he helped pay the school tuition of children who couldn't afford it and even painted an elderly woman's house.

But the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago saw something more sinister in O'Leary.

Just about a month ago, the archdiocese removed him from his post after O'Leary had engaged in "a pattern of inappropriate behavior" that showed him "at risk of sexual misconduct to the children."

No church official from the archdiocese on down will say exactly what O'Leary is accused of doing. No criminal charges of any kind have been filed against the priest.

And O'Leary, an associate pastor at the church for the past year, won't speak publicly about what led to his dismissal.

As a result, many in the congregation are angry and confused about what has happened to their church. Many are demanding an explanation.

"He's been crucified," said Tim Rudis, standing on the stoop of his home and holding a stack of pro-O'Leary petitions he said contained 1,400 signatures. "And all we're supposed to do is pray, pay and obey."

O'Leary's dismissal resulted from the archdiocese's year-old policy aimed at protecting children, a commitment spurred by the many cases of alleged sexual abuse of children by priests.

So when the archdiocese removed O'Leary from his church, it was done "out of an abundance of caution," said Steve Sidlowski, the archdiocese's professional fitness review administrator.

"There was no formal accusation of sexual misconduct," Sidlowski said. "But serious concerns were raised about his conduct that we examined very closely."

He said O'Leary also violated school policies. He would not be specific about O'Leary's conduct or about what policies he violated.

O'Leary, who grew up in Ireland and was ordained in Spain, clearly made his mark on this congregation and school.

At his final mass, parishioners crammed the church and formed a reception line to shake his hand and wish him well. And now that the church has asked O'Leary to return to his home diocese in Oviedo, Spain, some parishioners say they won't quiet down until they get answers.

Rudis and other O'Leary supporters say the church is being unfair to the priest.

"I've been here 18 years and he's the greatest thing we've had," said Raellen Herbert, who has grandsons in 6th and 8th grades in Incarnation School, which serves kindergarten through 8th grade. "He's the first priest we've had that went into the school and really worked with the children."

Mike Mortimer, who has a son in the 4th-grade class, said: "Everyone flocked around him. I've been in the car with Father Pat and these kids would come running up to him.

"I think the archdiocese is getting paranoid."

O'Leary, said several parishioners, was guilty of becoming involved.

After the Christmas service, they said, O'Leary took the altar boys out for breakfast as a reward for a job well-done.

Herbert and others said they believe O'Leary was ousted because he angered some school employees by demanding more work out of people and that less money be spent.

Sidlowski, who scoffs at such a notion, won't say what O'Leary did wrong, something that makes his supporters even more suspicious of the accusations. But he said concerns were raised by "more than one adult" and some teachers.

Given the recent policies and that O'Leary's behavior was "so inappropriate," Sidlowski said, the decision was made to remove him. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin has been in touch with O'Leary's bishop in Spain, Sidlowski said. The Cook County state's attorney's office has been informed of the matter, but no charges have been filed or even considered.

A year ago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin announced a number of policy revisions for how the archdiocese would handle complaints of sexual abuse. For instance, he replaced a priest-managed investigative system with a nine-member review committee dominated and led by non-clergy.

In January, he put Sidlowski, formerly an attorney with the Cook County public guardian's office, in charge of allegations of sexual misconduct.

O'Leary, Sidlowski said, had a fair hearing but still could appeal the decision. Still, Sidlowski blamed O'Leary for "fueling" the protest by "saying some things from the altar that were inconsistent with what he acknowledged privately."

The church, meanwhile, is working with a healing team from the archdiocese to reunite the congregation.

"It's consumed a lot of time," said Rev. Robert Dovick, Incarnation's pastor and now its only priest. "It's like a grieving experience."

Dovick said the protesters, who he said make up a small part of the church, are asking for explanations in vain.

"They've been told so many times there aren't going to be any specifics because of the privacy of the people involved," he said.

"I think a lot of people are saddened by his departure," said Dovick, who has been a priest at Incarnation for 14 years and said a replacement for O'Leary is scheduled to start this week. "I still admire him very much."


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