Priest Critical of Process for Allegations
Rev. Dennerlein: Accused of Sexual Abuse in Joliet

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News [Joliet IL]
Downloaded October 17, 2003

JOLIET A Joliet Diocese priest accused of sexually abusing young boys questioned the credibility of his accusers and criticized the diocese's process for reviewing allegations.

Church officials on Oct. 4 announced that the diocese's review board had determined that abuse allegations about the Rev. Arno Dennerlein were credible and that Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch would continue to keep the priest on temporary administrative leave. Dennerlein was suspended as pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Lombard in February after two Joliet brothers told Joliet police that Dennerlein engaged in inappropriate conduct with them when the priest was at St. Patrick's Church during the 1970s.

On Oct. 6, Dennerlein wrote a letter addressed to all priests of the Joliet Diocese. He told his colleagues that he denied the allegations and urged them to be cautious about the lack of due process afforded clerics accused of misconduct.

"The Diocesan Review Committee's processes lacked even a semblance of fairness," Dennerlein wrote. "The worst criminal in this country is afforded rights that I was denied ... This same kind of injustice can be visited upon any other priest in this diocese."

Those rights include presumed innocence and the ability to confront accusers, the priest said in the letter. He further objected that a review committee member who had a say in determining his fate also served as lead investigator for the case.

"The committee's chief investigator ... said he believed I was guilty before he heard my version of events," Dennerlein wrote.

The Herald News obtained a copy of the letter, in which Dennerlein also challenged the credibility of one of his accusers. He refers to "a single, momentary incident" involving one boy, though two brothers filed police reports.

Dennerlein also told his colleagues that hundreds of former students, parishioners and others wrote letters attesting to his character.

The priest's letter sheds light on the deliberative process of the committee, which was created in 1993 to help the diocese assess allegations of sexual misconduct. The committee has been busiest lately, with accusers naming at least 12 priests associated with the diocese during the past two years. Most clerics were suspended from ministries because the allegations were deemed credible. One, the Rev. John Barrett, was reinstated as pastor of Mary Queen of Heaven parish in Elmhurst.

Four review board members could not be reached for comment on Dennerlein's case. One board member declined to comment. Joliet Diocese spokesman John Cullen refused to elaborate on how the 10-member board reached its recommendation.

"The internal workings of the committee are confidential," Cullen said.

Cullen referred to the diocese's policy regarding sexual abuse of minors, which states that at least six members of the committee must concur in their findings and recommendations. The policy directs the committee to "conduct any inquiries in a professional manner" and "analyze and assess the credibility of allegations of sexual misconduct," among other duties.

The final determination about whether to remove a priest from active ministry is made by the bishop. Imesch has said he will always heed the committee's recommendations, and in Dennerlein's case, he did so despite "personal reservations" about the claims.

A week after Dennerlein wrote his letter, he faced new allegations of *sexual abuse. In a civil lawsuit, two brothers said that Dennerlein and two other priests molested them when they were children attending St. John the Baptist School in Winfield. The suit filed by John and Jeff Welch also names former priest John Slown and the late Rev. Richard Ruffalo as defendants, and accuses Imesch and the diocese of engaging in a conspiracy to cover up incidents of sexual abuse.

The suit cites a 1962 Vatican document that calls for utmost secrecy in handling abuse allegations. The suit also claims that church leaders intimidated abuse victims in an effort to conceal the extent of the scandal in order to keep parishioners' donations flowing.

When contacted by phone at his home in Winfield on Thursday, Dennerlein refused to answer questions and hung up.

The Joliet Diocese has forwarded Dennerlein's case to the Vatican, where the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can decide whether Dennerlein should be reinstated, allowed to remain a priest but not function in an active ministry, or be removed from the priesthood.

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