Joliet Priest Is Accused of Decades-Old Sex Abuse

By Margaret Ramirez
Chicago Tribune
February 8, 2006,1,1873933.story?coll=chi-newslocallake-hed&ctrack=1&cset=true

Amid renewed criticism over the way he has dealt with abusive priests, Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch placed the rector of the diocese cathedral on administrative leave Tuesday pending an investigation of allegations that he repeatedly abused a boy from 1978 to 1982 while serving at a Mokena parish.

Rev. James Burnett, who has been at the Cathedral of St. Raymond since 2002, denies the allegations, the Catholic Diocese of Joliet said in a statement.

At a Chicago news conference Tuesday, Dan Shanahan, 34, said the abuse began when he was 8. He didn't tell anyone for years, he said, but decided three months ago to come forward because he was worried that Burnett would hurt another child.

"The reason I'm here is to make sure no more children get abused," said Shanahan, who now lives in Phoenix. "I know Father Burnett is still in a parish, and that gives me great pain."

Shanahan's attorney, Jeff Anderson, said the abuse occurred at least 40 times in four years while Burnett was a priest at St. Mary in Mokena, where the diocese said he served from 1974 to 1990.

Burnett also served at St. Charles Borromeo in Bensenville from 1968 to 1974 and Sts. Peter and Paul in Naperville from 1990 to 2002.

Minutes after Shanahan had recounted his allegations to reporters, the Joliet diocese released a statement saying that although Burnett denied the allegations he had been placed on administrative leave.

According to the statement, the diocese learned of the allegations just before Christmas and took several steps, including interviewing the accuser and offering him counseling. Burnett was interviewed and told not to have contact with children, and two people were designated to monitor him. The Will County state's attorney's office was informed.

The statement continued: "Although Father Burnett continues to deny the allegations, Bishop Imesch has placed Father Burnett on administrative leave until the matter is resolved."

Imesch, 74, who has been bishop in Joliet since 1979, came under fire last week after a court deposition provided new details about the way he handled allegations against priests. In one instance, Imesch said it was inappropriate but not abusive for a priest to go skinny-dipping and play poker nude with young boys; he relocated that priest to another parish.

On Sunday, in a letter to the more than 600,000 Catholics in the Joliet diocese, Imesch apologized for his actions, saying he had relied heavily on the judgment of professional therapists who assessed whether a priest was fit for return to ministry.

The statement issued Tuesday outlined some of the diocese's procedures for dealing with abuse allegations. "Whenever an adult comes forward with an allegation of abuse that was to have occurred over 20-30 years ago, it is the policy of the diocese that the priest remain in ministry until the allegation has been determined credible," it said, adding that the priest is monitored during this period.

Last week the archdiocese of Chicago said it would reconsider its own policies regarding accused priests after Rev. Daniel McCormack was criminally charged. Some of the abuse is alleged to have taken place after the priest had been placed under monitoring by church officials.

Joliet diocese spokesman Thomas Kerber said the Diocesan Review Committee will meet this month to make a recommendation about Burnett to the bishop. Will County State's Atty. James Glasgow confirmed his investigators are looking into a case involving Burnett after receiving correspondence from diocese attorney James Byrne.

Church staff members at St. Mary in Mokena, where Burnett Hall is named for the longtime priest, declined to comment Tuesday. At the cathedral in Joliet, signs on the rectory doors directed media inquiries to the diocesan spokesman.

Several nearby residents said they send their children to St. Raymond's elementary school and were surprised by the allegations.

"We love him. We love him. I'm shocked," one woman said.


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