One Priest's Slander Lawsuit Held up 2nd Sex-abuse Case

By Manya A. Brachear
Chicago Tribune
November 17, 2009,0,915306.story

St. Mark Catholic Church in Humboldt Park is now in shock over removal of longtime pastor

The sexual-abuse case against the Rev. Edward Maloney hinged on the case against another Roman Catholic priest.

That priest, the Rev. Robert Stepek, sued two brothers for slander in November 2006 after they said he molested them.

Nearly a year later, a former parishioner at St. Mark Catholic Church in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood contacted the Chicago Archdiocese with an allegation of abuse against Maloney, the parish's pastor emeritus.

Because of the case pending against Stepek's accusers, Maloney's accuser declined to testify to church investigators, said his lawyer, Joseph Klest. The silence sabotaged the claim, which remained open while the retired priest remained in ministry.

In June, a state appellate court ruled that Stepek could not sue accusers who cooperated with a church investigation without violating religious liberties guaranteed to the church by the U.S. Constitution -- a victory hailed by victims' advocates and the archdiocese.

The ruling freed Klest's client and a second man to tell their stories, persuading the review board and Cardinal Francis George to remove Maloney from ministry and forward his case to the Vatican, which could permanently remove him from the priesthood.

On Tuesday, St. Mark parishioners plan to rally behind their former leader, who maintains his innocence.

Like members of St. Albert the Great Church in Burbank, where Stepek served until his removal in 2006, many worry that the reputation of their pastor, who shielded many of the parish's youths from gangs and drugs, has been tarnished by false accusations.

Some have fought back by publicizing the accusers' names. The Tribune does not publish the names of possible sexual abuse victims.

"This is the worst thing that could possibly happen," said Klest, who said his clients were afraid to come forward for nearly 30 years for this very reason. "They are scared to death that they are going to be vilified in the community."

Meanwhile, victims' advocates blame the archdiocese for not reporting allegations against Maloney sooner so more victims could come forward. They say the delay gave Maloney time to intimidate victims and come up with alibis.

Officials at the archdiocese said they told the parish as soon as they decided to remove Maloney. But those deliberations were hampered by the Stepek case.

Klest said the first accuser approached the archdiocese in October 2007, almost a year after Stepek sued his accusers. The man accused Maloney of molesting him twice a month when he would stay overnight in the rectory from 6th to 8th grades, Klest said, adding that abuse also allegedly took place at Maloney's cottage in Antioch.

In February, the independent review board informed the accuser that there was insufficient evidence and invited him to testify. Klest said he told the archdiocese that he could not let his client risk facing a lawsuit, citing Stepek's legal action.

Instead, Klest went in search of corroborating witnesses. He approached two men who also lived in the rectory during their youth. One of them referred Klest to a lawyer who worked for Maloney, he said. The other man told Klest to get lost.

When Klest threatened to subpoena him as a witness, he said the man also admitted to being abused by Maloney. For a year starting in 1979, the man said he had spent every night at the rectory where Maloney repeatedly abused him, Klest said. He filed a complaint with the archdiocese in January. But again, following Klest's advice, he would not testify.

At that time, Klest also submitted an affidavit to judges reviewing the Stepek case. In it, he explained that as long as Stepek was allowed to sue, his clients would not be able to make their case.

"He provided strong evidence of what the damage could be," archdiocese lawyer John O'Malley said.

Still, the similar yet separate allegations against Maloney swayed the review board, Klest said. Maloney was withdrawn from ministry at the end of May. Weeks later, the courts ruled against Stepek.

When Maloney requested another review, Klest's clients again were invited to testify. This time, Klest let them. In October, both clients faced the review board, which swiftly recommended Maloney's removal. Members of St. Mark were told of the decision on Nov. 8.

Since then, the parish has been in a state of shock, said the Rev. Elmer Romero, the current pastor at St. Mark. "Those who are very close to Father Maloney just don't believe it," he said. Yet, while parishioners are free to rally behind their former pastor, he will caution them on Tuesday to keep the names to themselves. "We don't want to hurt anyone else."



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