Priest Asks Forgiveness Amid Hugs, Tears

By Janita Poe
Chicago Tribune
October 16, 1995

Rev. John Calicott, a Catholic priest on administrative leave from his church since admitting last year to sexual misconduct with two minors, was welcomed back by his congregation Sunday with tears, applause and evangelical rejoicing.

During an emotional homily to the gathering of more than 600 people, Calicott asked his Holy Angels parish for forgiveness, and he thanked advocates for abuse victims for their "vigilance."

But Calicott also said that he was "angry" at the Catholic church for removing him from his parish and forcing him through "rigorous" therapy, and he blamed the media for wrongly portraying him as an admitted child abuser.

"I do not ever in my entire life, at any time, in any way, remember admitting that I am a pedophile or some kind of predatory child molester," Calicott, 48, said in the spacious, solar-powered South Side church, at 607 E. Oakwood Blvd. "I do not remember the archdiocese saying these things."

In a press conference following the mass, however, Calicott did acknowledge he engaged in "misconduct" with the two minors who, according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, were both 15 when the incident occurred in 1976. Calicott declined to talk specifically about the incident, citing the privacy of his accusers.

"I admit that something that should not have occurred did occur," Calicott said.

Sunday's mass at the renowned African-American church was a colorful, emotional testament to Holy Angels parishioners' dedication to their pastor. When Calicott walked down the center aisle of the church for the first time in 18 months, some in the pews cried while others grabbed him from the aisle to hug and kiss him.

Although Calicott was enthusiastically received by his parishioners, others on Sunday demonstrated their opposition to his reinstatement.

Outside the church, a small group of protesters from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests picketed. And some parents of children enrolled at Holy Angels School-which has about 1,400 kids and is the largest black Catholic school in the nation-said they had reservations about his return.

"They (parishioners) are trying to put up a united front before the city," said a 22-year-old mother of a kindergartner at the school who identified herself as Leslie. "But not everyone thinks he should return to the church."

Other parents said they liked Calicott and what he has done for Holy Angels but they wanted a clearer understanding of what he did with the two youths.

"If you are going to defend a person you want to know what you are defending," said Sharon Thomas, 32, who has two children enrolled in Holy Angels and also attended the school as a child.

Thomas said she wanted Calicott to discuss his case more openly. "If he did harm to those children then he doesn't need to be here."

Some parishioners who are close to Calicott and familiar with the details surrounding the incident said they do not believe he is a threat to children.

"It is a shame that people can't know what happened," said Rex Alexander, a prominent Holy Angels parishioner and hospital administrator. "If they did, the words 'molester,' 'pedophile' and 'abuser of kids' would never have come up."

Calicott is the first priest to be reinstated in the Chicago Archdiocese since Cardinal Joseph Bernardin established a strict policy on sexual misconduct in 1991, following a series of allegations against priests.

The sexual misconduct took place while Calicott was at St. Ailbe Catholic Church, 9015 S. Harper Ave., where he was associate priest from 1974 to 1980. It was Calicott's first assignment after his ordination in 1974. Church officials said they reinstated Calicott based on "special circumstances"-the length of time since the incident and the fact no other allegations had been raised.

Calicott said he has met with both victims since the incident and talked with one several times in the past few months. Though neither of the men-both now in their mid-30s-are members of Holy Angels, they may have attended Sunday's service. When asked at the press conference if the two were present at the mass, Calicott responded with "no comment."

As part of his reinstatement, Calicott has agreed to several restrictions in a "covenant" that was read Sunday. According to the agreement, Calicott must be monitored by "another responsible adult" whenever he is with children and he will continue therapy sessions "as long as deemed necessary by the archbishop of Chicago."

But parishioners on Sunday, many of whom wore yellow ribbons in support of Calicott, said they did not like the required monitoring because it would not allow him to interact with his parish as he has in the past.

"I believe he is strong enough to handle himself," said member Elizabeth Upchurch. "The children are going to be upset. And if I had a child here I would be hesitant to tell them the answer to the questions they are sure to ask."

Holy Angels has been recognized nationwide for its role in merging the ceremony of Catholicism with the intense spiritual style of the black church, and Calicott is certainly a part of that tradition. At times introspective and at times fiery, Calicott delivered a sermon on Sunday reminiscent of a Southern Baptist revival.

Calicott was born in Nesbit, Miss., and moved to Chicago when he was 6 years old. The oldest of six children, Calicott said he struggled with his father's alcoholism when he was a child growing up in the Ida B. Wells development. He also said he had been sexually abused by an older youngster when he was growing up.

But like many from troubled families who compensate by becoming exemplary students and workers, Calicott seemed nothing less than the ideal child to his friends. Even as an altar boy at Holy Angels, said childhood friend Rex Alexander, Calicott appeared destined for the priesthood.

"The altar boys would sort of pick into the goodies, the communion wafers and wine, but he wouldn't," said Alexander, 45.

Holy Angels has a rich tradition on the South Side. In the basement church hall on Sunday, some who had gathered for breakfast said this history has bonded parishioners together and made them even more determined to keep Calicott at the church.

"We want him here," said Dorothy Porche, 69, a member since 1954. "We want him among us."


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