Zero Tolerance Code Holds Priest with a Past in Limbo

By James Janega
Chicago Tribune
June 8, 2003

On Sundays, Rev. John Calicott sits with his mother at mass, in the fourth row on the left, the pastor of Holy Angels Catholic Church until the past pulled him from the pulpit one year ago.

His life in a limbo of church law began when Catholic bishops left a Dallas meeting last June with a zero-tolerance policy for priests who commit sexual abuse.

He was given a temporary suspension after new church laws were adopted at that meeting, and he quickly appealed it. But after a year, his appeal of the suspension still has not been completed.

Under earlier rules, Calicott was removed from ministry in 1994 when he was accused of abusing two teens 20 years before. Then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin returned Calicott to ministry in 1995, when Bernardin agreed Calicott posed no threat to children and the priest agreed to counseling and monitoring to assuage public concerns.

Now, he is among five priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago and more than 300 nationwide removed from ministry under the bishops' Dallas charter.

His case has become an example of mounting frustration in parishes here and elsewhere while the new wheels of canonical process slowly begin to turn.

A beloved pastor at an African-American Catholic church where some 500 families worship, Calicott has built on the work of the parish's former leader, the charismatic Rev. George Clements. Holy Angels' school is among the largest in Chicago, and the parish has instilled a sense of pride in the impoverished Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood.

But last June, a passage in the Dallas charter implying zero-tolerance--perhaps even for the forgiven--forced now-Cardinal Francis George to remove Calicott from ministry again, plunging him back into the center of an unformed, untested church process.

"For someone who has been productive all his life, now I'm being non-productive. You're just sort of waiting," Calicott said. "It just angers you."Under the provisions that grew out of the Dallas meeting, sexual abuse complaints are first referred to a review board of laypeople within the diocese, which assigns an independent investigator to determine the credibility of the claim against the priest.

The investigator's report tthen becomes the foundation of the board's recommendation to the local bishop--in this case, George--to temporarily remove the priest or not. The temporary suspension can last until a trial can be conducted by either the Vatican or, if the Vatican allows, a diocesan tribunal.

Of the eight priests George removed under the new rules, Calicott and four others have appealed their suspensions to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In Chicago, preliminary investigations of the accusations only began on March 1, when guidelines stemming from the bishops' meetings were put into place. They are expected to conclude next month and will then be referred to Rome for permission to conduct a full trial.

Calicott, who had already been through the entire process before, appealed his suspension last summer.

"The process was very ambitious, but still has a great deal of ambiguity to it," said Anthony Vales, communications director for Holy Angels. "We were hoping since the bishops' conference last year and since Father John was removed that this would have been resolved expeditiously and speedily. It has not."

Though Calicott is allowed under his suspension to say mass privately, he said he can't bring himself to do it. "It's the principle of the thing--the point of mass is to say it with people. So I attend mass at Holy Angels."

Instead of his robes and Roman collar, Calicott wore a blue shirt and suspenders to church one recent Sunday. He spoke briefly with parishioners when mass ended and left quickly.

He said the suspension has shaken nothing less than his faith--if not in God, then in the Catholic Church.

"How can the church do this to people?" Calicott asked. "Did they think Jesus would have zero tolerance?"

Now, he says, his future hangs in the decision of a Vatican bureaucracy. He has appealed only his temporary suspension. Theoretically, the Vatican could reject the appeal and a diocesan tribunal in Chicago would then decide his case.

"If the Vatican did that, I cannot see myself trying to function as a priest," Calicott said. "I would consider leaving the ministry even if the tribunal said to the cardinal 'I think you ought to put him back,' because that would say the [Vatican] is buying into zero tolerance."

"I'm a priest. You spend your whole life wanting to say mass, to preach and proclaim. I haven't said mass publicly or privately since this whole thing has happened," he said.

"Limbo is a horrible place to be."


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