Church Takes Risk on Forgiving
Some Doubt Child-Abuser Priest Can Ever Be Cured

By Bob Secter and Paul Galloway
Chicago Tribune
October 15, 1995

Redemption is the essence of Catholicism. Sinners can be saved, the fallen restored. Yet, the decision by the Archdiocese of Chicago to openly reinstate an admitted child molester as a parish priest has sparked an unsettling debate over the limits of therapy and forgiveness.

Few crimes are as repugnant as sex abuse, and few categories of criminals deemed more likely to repeat their offenses than those who take advantage of children.

Experts say sex offenders cannot be cured but that some can learn to control their impulses.

"You can't get rid of this disorder totally, but we believe in a significant number of individuals you can bring the behavior under control with a high degree of reliability," said Frank Valcour, medical director of St. Luke Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Maryland that has a treatment program for priests with sexual disorders.

But others think abusers are beyond reform.

"Spiritually, I believe redemption is always an option for us, but we're talking about the earthly realm here," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Why take the risk? . . . If I'm a pyromaniac and I've been treated, that doesn't mean you give me gasoline and a match."

The public reinstatement of Rev. John Calicott to his position at Holy Angels Church on Thursday was a first for the Chicago archdiocese, and it was both praised as bold and attacked as reckless.

Looming even larger is another question, one the archdiocese has yet to explain with anything but a vague statement about the "special circumstances" of Calicott's case:

What does the archdiocese hope to accomplish by making an exception to its policy of never reinstating abusive priests, a ban imposed three years ago after a groundswell of complaints that such problems had too long been swept under the rug?

Some of the answer may lie in how experts view the odds for Calicott to remain out of trouble as well as the factors weighed by the archdiocese in taking what is clearly a calculated risk.

For instance, Valcour said molesters who victimize very young children are considered to be more resistant to treatment. But Calicott's victims were both teenagers, according to an official of the archdiocese.

Calicott, 48, sees his return after more than a year's absence as a positive experience, not just for him but for his entire flock of African-American parishioners at the South Side church.

"I am not ashamed to say I made a mistake. I am not ashamed to say that I need forgiveness," he said, referring to admissions that nearly two decades ago he had sexual contact with two teenage boys. "I think I bring a greater understanding of pain and suffering and hurt and the power of Christians when they come together."

Calicott, a slim bespectacled man with salt-and-pepper hair, declined to discuss specifics of the allegations against him, citing the need to preserve the confidentiality of his accusers. But he said he has met with both of the men and talked with one several times in recent months.

He insisted the incidents of abuse were not part of a pattern, but "isolated."

"I am not a risk to children," he said.

Calicott spent six months in therapy at St. Luke last year and since then has been at a retreat north of Chicago with other priests suffering from similar problems. The therapy, Calicott said, has helped him "make some connection" with his past and what led up to his problems in adulthood.

Some of those childhood traumas, Calicott said in an interview Friday, included being sexually abused as a child himself by an older youngster and growing up with an alcoholic father.

Experts say such experiences fit the profile of many child abusers, who themselves had been abused as children.

Still, Valcour said some priests with sexual disorders have been reassigned successfully to parish ministry under a strict monitoring program similar to that imposed on Calicott by the archdiocese.

"The number is small, but it proves to my mind that it's possible for some to control their behavior," said Valcour. "I know of two who were removed because they did not live up to the guidelines under which they were allowed to return but not because of any charges of sexual misconduct."

Those who have had a successful recovery, Valcour said, are those who understand their compulsions in certain situations and steer clear of them.

Similarly, Louis Kraus, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, said Calicott is not necessarily doomed to backslide. One thing in his favor is his age, Kraus explained.

"Most anti-social behaviors in people decrease or disappear by their mid-40s," he explained. "That's not to say it happens for all people, but John Wayne Gacys are isolated cases."

Such sentiments are not unanimous. In the view of Dr. Joanne G. Parks, a psychiatrist who specializes in childhood trauma at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, the enthusiasm of many of Calicott's parishioners for his return has serious implications for the children of the parish.

"They're at risk because of the denial of the parents," she said. "If he's returning to a congregation that's delighted to have him back, how long will it be until everybody falls into their old patterns of behavior and this man is not chaperoned?"

Under terms of his reinstatement, Calicott must continue therapy and be monitored by an adult when he's in the company of children.

The archdiocese, Parks said, should stick to its stated policy against returning sex offenders to parishes. "The church would be better advised to place this man in an environment where there are not children readily available and where his job does not require interactions with them," she said.

The question looming over Calicott's future is whether he truly is capable of being rehabilitated in the eyes of not just the church but the faithful as well.

"From a Catholic perspective, forgiveness is always possible, but reconciliation-the re-establishment of a broken trust-may not be," said Rev. Paul Wadell, professor of ethics at Catholic Theological Union. "Reconciliation is a process. The stages are repentance, contrition, claiming responsibility, healing and finally reunion."

It's important for Calicott to acknowledge his misdeeds and their seriousness, Wadell says, but in a public confession, he should speak only in generalities so as not to embarrass or humiliate his victims.

Such comments may come as early as Sunday, when Calicott plans to share what he calls his "journey" with his congregation in a sermon. Later, he has scheduled a press conference.

Leaders of groups representing victims of sexual abuse by priests clearly are not convinced of the wisdom of his restoration.

"We oppose any reinstatement of priests who are known to have abused children to ministries that involve children," said Thomas Economus, president of LINKUP, Surviors of Clergy Abuse. "We're very concerned about this."

He also believes the parishioners' support ignores the potential danger to their children. "I think it's wonderful and admirable the parishioners are assuming responsibility for him," he said. "But it's very likely he could re-offend. This is not about popularity, but the safety of their own children."

Nevertheless, Rev. Tom Paprocki, archdiocesan chancellor, said the archdiocese carefully considered legal, humane and theological questions before allowing Calicott back.

"We're dealing with human beings and their futures, including the future of Father Calicott. And these human questions are related to theological issues such as forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.