Clergy, laity pray for justice for Cassidy

The Community Word
October 31, 2015

Terry Cassidy in better times, boating last November in Florida. Today, Cassidy has been forced from the ministry and not been afforded the opportunity to defend himself.

Hundreds of Central Illinoisans for years watched Father Terry Cassidy mimic a fish that’s unaware it’s surrounded by water. It’s been his light-hearted effort to show how people often don’t realize they’re surrounded – by grace.

But Cassidy, 64, now finds himself feeling surrounded, too – by an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor, by a group advocating for such victims, and by a handful of influential people within the Catholic Diocese of Peoria (CDOP).

“What’s happened to Father Terry is evil,” says an ordained deacon who spoke on the condition his name not be used since the Diocese instructed clergy to not respond to media inquiries.

“I’m not defending child abusers,” he continues. “They should be held accountable. But I am defending a wonderful man persecuted, I think, for his popularity, his success as a minister.”

The evil – the sin – of pedophilia is real, of course. Plus, the Church for years covered up abuse. But most media coverage of the tragedy in the United States, Ireland and elsewhere focused on accusations and priests in particular, not perpetrators in general and convictions. In fact, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s independent report in 2004 found that during the previous 50 years, there were 4,392 U.S. clergy accused of the crime, about 4 percent of the 109,694 clergy, and 252 convictions.

Conviction results from prosecutions that use evidence. However, accusations alone can be powerful.

The CDOP exerted its power on Aug. 26 when it announced its removal of Cassidy, the pastor of St. Ann’s church on the South Side, from ministry. It cited the secret Diocesan Review Commission (DRC), which is tasked with determining “credible evidence” of reports:

“Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C. of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria has, upon the unanimous advice of the Diocesan Review Commission, required Father Terry Cassidy, pastor of St. Ann church, Peoria, Illinois, to step down from public ministry,” CDOP’s prepared statement said. “Allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor were made against Cassidy dating back nearly 30 years ago. He can no longer function as a Catholic priest in any public capacity, wear clerical garb or the Roman collar, and is to refrain from using the title Reverend or Father.”

The CDOP refuses to provide the accuser’s name or details, and CDOP officials did not respond to a Community Word request for a comment.

Cassidy also was banned from Church property and forbidden from having contact with parishioners, sources say, but he’s sent word to his congregation that he is innocent and won’t resign. He’s reportedly engaged a canon lawyer to represent him with the Church.

In his 31 years as a priest, Cassidy conducted countless Masses, baptisms, marriages and anointings; served in several parishes; and was spiritual director for the Cursillo/TEC [Teens Encounter Christ] programs and chaplain for the St. Jude Council of the Knights of Columbus. Now, however, he faces an accusation from a Rock Island County man a law enforcement source described as troubled.

[Full disclosure: I’m a Catholic active in Cursillo and once had Cassidy speak at a parish program in Elmwood.]

No criminal case or civil lawsuit about the allegations is pending, but under Catholic Code of Canon Law – kind of institutional by-laws – bureaucrats apparently can ignore America’s presumption of innocence standard.

Peoria State’s Attorney Jerry Brady (also Catholic), whose office has prosecuted about 50 child sexual abuse cases in the last four years, said the allegations would unravel in court.

Brady said he was limited by what he could say but did comment, “It does not appear that our office would prosecute this case.”

Cassidy has defenders against the Diocese.

“There is something very rotten going on here,” says a St. Ann’s parishioner. “And I am willing to name the real victim: It’s Father Terry Cassidy.”

Unsubstantiated or older accusations are a troubling trend nationwide.

Father Thomas Guarino, a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, asked, “Should a bishop act quickly to suspend any priest … when time has dimmed memories? Isn’t this the traditional wisdom undergirding statutes of limitations – the recognition that facts and events are no longer clearly recalled after the passage of years?”

Also, “credible evidence” means little more than a claim is not entirely groundless, said Guarino, adding, “A ‘credible’ accusation may mean only that, at a given time, the accuser and the priest lived in the same geographical area.”

Priests realize their reputations, vocations and lives can be ruined without having been found guilty.

“Somebody can say anything,” says Father Patrick Collins, a retired priest from Peoria still active with Cross Catholic Outreach serving the poor.

“Priests are a bit nervous about that. I can’t imagine the board not even talking to Terry. How do you defend yourself? I don’t understand it,” Collins says. “He says he is innocent. His personal integrity is impeccable. Knowing Terry I would be inclined to believe him.”

Some blame the “Dallas Charter,” U.S. bishops’ non-binding “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” adopted in 2002 as a procedure to deal with allegations. Critics say the charter essentially invites false accusations, a tendency to protect financial interests, and concern with public relations at a time when groups such as SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) focus on Catholic clergy despite widespread cases involving other faiths, plus teachers, Scout leaders, etc.

“I am tired of seeing priests destroyed by unsubstantiated accusations of a sexual nature,” said Carole “Andi” Andrzejewski, a New York supporter of Opus Bono Sacerdotii (“work for the good of the priesthood”). “The Dallas Charter is a travesty that treats priests, religious and laity as disposable, making no distinction between proven and unproven allegation, strips the accused of their canonical and civil rights and allows anyone who has a grudge to destroy a fellow human being.”

Protestants support Cassidy, too.

“This entire tragedy just seems much more political than factual,” says the Rev. Carole Hoke, pastor of East Peoria’s Fondulac Congregational United Church of Christ. “I do not know what the real reason for eliminating Father Terry might be, but it seems suspect. A good, forward, progressive-thinking and -acting priest and he is eliminated. Perhaps the real reason is that Terry Cassidy rebuilt a parish the Diocese was about to close, is extremely well-liked, is effective and can relate to all who come into his presence.”

St. Ann’s parishioners stand behind Cassidy.

“It seems the pendulum has swung from weirdly lenient and indifferent to overly zealous and cruel,” says St. Ann’s parishioner David Lavallee. “I didn’t know the Roman Catholic Church was in the Amish practice of shunning, but they are certainly good at it.”

Hoke is less angry than sad.

“The defrocking of Father Terry Cassidy is a tragedy,” she says. “What truly disturbs me, as a fellow clergy person, is his parish. The parish is hurting.”

Others say Church management is responsible.

“Inadequate bishops, fearful of public opinion, tend to isolate themselves from those who think differently than they do, and confront issues in a dictatorial manner,” said Father Michael Orsi, Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria Law School in Florida.

One deacon says, “My faith is not shaken. But my faith in basic fairness in this Diocese is.”

Hoke hopes for reconciliation.

“The church universal needs effective and competent pastors to lead and guide the flock,” she says. “It is my hope and prayer that these allegations are withdrawn, that he is reinstated, should that be his choice. But no matter what, I want him to know how loved and cared about he is; how thankful people are for his ministry.”

One deacon regrets he can’t even talk to Cassidy. He prays that Father Terry – wherever he is – may realize he, too, is surrounded as a fish in water:

By love and mercy.


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