Paprocki Looking Forward to Challenges As Springfield Bishop

By Steven Spearie
State Journal-Register
May 30, 2010

Springfield Bishop-designate Thomas Paprocki had the opportunity indulge his love of hockey by practicing with the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team in 2006.

Walk the streets of South Austin Boulevard in Cicero, especially around the offices of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and you’re likely to see Polish flags hanging next to Mexican flags in the windows of tidy bungalows, near where parents pick up their children from St. Frances of Rome School.

This is the neighborhood the Rev. Thomas Paprocki has called home since 2003, when he was named an auxiliary bishop. The Poles are the latest arrivals to Cicero — a town more associated with gangster Al Capone — following a wave of Hispanics in the late 1970s and ‘80s.

Paprocki is a native son of Chicago. A civil and canon, or church, lawyer, he speaks five languages, Spanish and Polish among them.

Next month, Paprocki, 57, will be installed as the ninth bishop of Springfield’s Catholic diocese. He says he first visited the capital city as an eighth-grader, digests Abraham Lincoln biographies (a favorite is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”), and most recently has been acquainted with Springfield through Catholics at the Capitol.

Paprocki’s region of the Chicago archdiocese covers part of Cook County, with 400,000 Catholics concentrated in 60 parishes. The expansive Springfield diocese encompasses 28 counties from the Missouri to the Indiana border, with a Catholic population of fewer than 150,000.

“Is it going to be challenging in a more rural area? The challenge will be covering more ground, getting to know the lay of the land, contrasted to here,” said Paprocki, in a recent interview in his Cicero office.

“The bottom line is that I’ve met people from all walks of life. Human nature is the same everywhere. It doesn’t change all that much.

“I don’t feel like I’m at that much of a disadvantage.”

Astute, affable

Paprocki will have to navigate more than the back roads of central Illinois.

The 2006 Roberts Report, which cited misconduct by some of the top leaders of the Springfield diocese and a “permissive culture” cultivated by then-Bishop Daniel Ryan, is still fresh in many minds.

In addition, many diocesan priests are overextended and, especially in rural areas, must cover multiple parishes.

Paprocki also comes to Springfield at a time when American Catholics are leery of church hierarchy in general. Polls reflect historically low job-approval numbers in light of continuing sexual abuse revelations in the church.

Comments Paprocki made in 2007 about large monetary damages to victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by church authorities have been characterized by some as slighting victims, although he clarified those remarks in an op-ed piece in The State Journal-Register earlier this month.

Those inside the church believe Paprocki’s intellect and his passion for social justice — in 1996, he helped co-found a Chicago legal clinic whose clients pay fees on a sliding scale — will win over local Catholics.

“I think Bishop Paprocki will be a powerful voice for Catholic social teaching in the state capital,” said Thomas Peters, who maintains the website

The Rev. Kevin Vann, a Springfield native and bishop of the Fort Worth, Texas, diocese, says of Paprocki: “He’s astute, he’s affable, and he’s well-respected for his thought and intellect. He’ll bring those gifts and talents, and people will recognize that very quickly.”

Vann said he’s worked with Paprocki on a national level in the area of canon law.

Promotion no surprise

Few were surprised by Paprocki’s ascendancy. The former chancellor for the Chicago archdiocese also had been rumored for a recent opening in the Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., diocese.

But Paprocki may be uniquely suited to be a state capital bishop. As an attorney -- Paprocki earned his degree from the DePaul University College of Law after becoming a priest and is a member of the Illinois State Bar Association – he will have extra cachet around the Capitol and in the circle of attorneys in Springfield.

“I’m not going to Springfield as a lobbyist or with an agenda,” Paprocki maintains. “No one said anything to me about a personal agenda.

“The qualities I have can certainly be helpful to relationships I have (with legislators, many of whom are attorneys.) There’s an instant rapport. It facilitates the conversation.”

Paprocki also has attended Catholics at the Capitol events for the last two springs. The initiative, organized through the Catholic Conference of Illinois, brings Catholics together to press legislators on a number of issues, from funding community organizations and parishes in providing English classes to immigrants to opposing legislation for same-sex marriages.

Paprocki is no stranger to speaking the church’s mind from the pulpit or elsewhere.

In face of the Freedom of Choice Act in 2008, Paprocki said Catholic hospitals would have to close if federal law required them to perform abortions.

When former Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed an emergency regulation requiring Illinois pharmacists to accept and fill prescriptions for contraceptives – the use of which, by Catholics, goes against church teaching – Paprocki, who comes from a family of pharmacists, scolded the governor in front of attendees at a 2005 memorial Mass in Chicago for Pope John Paul II.

“Afterwards, the governor shook my hand and said something to the effect, ‘I understand why you said what you said,’“ recalls Paprocki. “He didn’t engage me in a conversation and, of course, he didn’t rescind the order.”

‘Work of the devil’

After Paprocki’s Springfield appointment in April, some national media outlets picked up on comments he made in Grand Rapids, Mich., at a 2007 “red Mass” for members of the legal profession, in which he maintained that the “free exercise of religion for Catholics” was under attack because of excessive payouts to victims of sexual abuse. He insisted such settlements weren’t punishing the proper authorities, but rather “the average parishioner or donor whose financial contributions support the church.”

At the time, Paprocki added that the principal force behind the attacks against bishops and priests “is none other than the devil.”

In a recent interview, Paprocki says his point wasn’t to blame victims, nor was it to call the filing of such lawsuits “the work of the devil.”

But Paprocki stuck to his position that, if paying claims prevents the church from doing charity work, that would be “an evil thing.”

Track record questioned

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says Paprocki’s clarifications are too little, too late.

“He’s stayed silent all these years,” says Clohessy from St. Louis. “Now that he’s been promoted, his harsh comments won’t go away, and he’s ‘misunderstood.’ That’s pretty disingenuous.

“If he believes (such attacks) were inspired by the devil, who knows what other bizarre notions he has?”

Clohessy said the Chicago archdiocese has “a long and very disturbing track record” on clergy sex crimes and cover-ups and that Paprocki, as Cardinal George’s liaison to the Office of Professional Fitness Review, had a duty to speak up over the years.

Paprocki, who became vice-chancellor of the Chicago archdiocese under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, architect of one of the most comprehensive policies regarding sexual abuse of minors, says he’ll do what he can in Springfield with regard to the issue. But he’s also aware of “how people view leadership in the church right now.”

“Bishops are the successors of the apostles. Look at that first group. These were men with recognizable flaws and even gospel writers addressed that, yet he put them in charge of the church,” says Paprocki.

“We shouldn’t pretend bishops or priests are perfect. I had to smile at a recent newspaper headline I saw: ‘Pope admits church sins.’ Hello? Isn’t that why we’re here?”

Paprocki says he’s aware of the 2006 Roberts Report, which confirmed serious, but not criminal misconduct by eight priests in the Springfield diocese, including a number in high leadership positions. He said he will read the full text.

“I do have to say that (former Springfield) Bishop (George) Lucas did a credible job of addressing what was in that report, and I’m grateful for that,” says Paprocki. “I have the sense that things are in pretty good shape (in the diocese.)”

As for priests covering multiple parishes, some at some distance apart, Paprocki says the ideal set-up is “one pastor, one parish,” though the reality is often something else.

“It’s tough on priests and challenging for people,” allows Paprocki, who hopes to boost vocations in the diocese.

“If the bishop is a good shepherd to us and we learn from that, then we become better shepherds for our people,” says Monsignor Kenneth Steffen of Marine, who knows Paprocki through canon law circles.

Runner, athlete

When Paprocki was officially appointed a bishop in 2003, Pope John Paul II took note of his enthusiasm for marathon running – he’s competed in 16 of them since 1995 – and noted in a letter that Paprocki would “run an even harder race for the people of Chicago.”

“St. Paul made several references to running, ‘to run in such a way as to get the prize,’“ says Paprocki. “My involvement with sports started as a boy. I started running for fitness.”

Chicago White Sox and Chicago Blackhawks posters line the walls outside Paprocki’s office. “The Holy Goalie” has skated at practices with the Blackhawks and the Columbus Blue Jackets and he’s still active in a house league in Chicago.

“I’ve learned a great deal from sports competition,” says Paprocki. “The discipline of being a runner. The great deal of concentration it takes to keep the puck out of the net.

“All translate to life lessons.”

Steven Spearie can be reached at or at 622-1788.


Attending the installation of the Most Rev. Thomas J. Paprocki as the Springfield Catholic diocese’s ninth bishop? You’ll need a ticket.

The Formal Rite of Reception and Installation at the newly renovated Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception June 22 will include Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George. Celebrations welcoming Paprocki begin June 21 with a 7 p.m. evening prayer, also at the downtown Cathedral and also by ticket only. There he will be welcomed by civic, religious and lay leaders.

About 50 bishops are expected to attend the installation, including Paprocki’s immediate predecesor and Omaha, Neb. archbishop, George Lucas and Ft. Worth, Tex. bishop Kevin Vann, a Springfield native and former pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church.


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