Back of the Yards priest who admitted to sexual misconduct as teenager gives up collar

By Manya Brachear Pashman
Chicago Tribune
July 18, 2017

The Rev. Bruce Wellems, a member of the Claretian Missionaries order, had worked as a priest and community activist at Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood for decades.
Photo by Brian Cassella

A popular Back of the Yards priest who admitted to sexual misconduct as a teenager has left his Roman Catholic religious order and asked the pope to remove him from the priesthood, according to a letter from the lawyer for the Claretian Missionaries provided as part of a legal settlement.

Bruce Wellems, a former priest at Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, who acknowledged that decades ago, when he was 15, he abused a 7-year-old boy, resigned from the Claretians in the past year, after the victim sued the order.

The victim, Eric Johnson, now 52, said Wellems abused him multiple times when Johnson was 7 years old.

"I could have chosen to remain anonymous, but I did not, which was not easy for my family nor myself. Yet I continue to push for justice," he said. "He is a danger to the kids and the community."

Wellems, 60, was barred from active ministry in the Chicago Archdiocese last year after an independent review board uncovered "additional facts that weren't previously available." It is unclear whether the review disclosed an additional victim.

He now serves as the executive director of the Peace and Education Coalition, a nonprofit that he helped create to organize summits and offer scholarships for at-risk youth in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Wellems could not be reached for comment. In an interview with the Tribune last year, he admitted to committing abuse as a minor.

"These allegations had nothing to do with who I was as a person," Wellems said in a Tribune article published last year. "In my adult life I've done nothing against children. There's nothing that's ever come up." 

Although Johnson feels somewhat relieved that Wellems no longer wears a collar, the fact that the church won't confirm or deny whether there's another victim and that Wellems still oversees an organization involved with young people still bothers him.

"I definitely think they've taken away the power of his priesthood," Johnson said. "That was one of my main goals. ... I've done everything I can now. It's up to others to watch him."

Members of the board of the Peace and Education Coalition declined to comment without Wellems' permission.

Over the past 30 years, Wellems has become a champion for young Latinos. Several years after his ordination in 1986, the Claretians moved him to Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, where he worked with at-risk youths in the neighborhood.

When Chicago Public Schools adopted a "one strike, you're out" policy —expelling students for offenses such as weapon possession, drug use and gang affiliation — Wellems helped establish two alternative schools, which have become two campuses of the Peace and Education Coalition Accelerated High School, both Chicago public schools.

In 1995, Johnson reached out to the Chicago Archdiocese to make officials aware of the priest's history. The archdiocese referred his complaint to the Claretians, who confronted the priest. Wellems confirmed that Johnson was telling the truth, though his recollection of the details and how long the abuse lasted differs from Johnson's.

He went through clinical assessments and entered counseling before the Claretians cleared him to return. Then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin accepted the determination in July 1996 and restored Wellems' faculties to wear a collar and serve as a priest.

In 2012, the Claretians transferred Wellems to San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles and promoted him to prefect of the apostolate for the Claretian Missionaries, a position in the Claretian hierarchy. But in 2014, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez removed him from ministry after learning about his prior sexual misconduct as a juvenile. Wellems returned to his former Chicago neighborhood to resume work as a youth advocate and activist. 

Earlier this year, the California mission invited Wellems back to receive an award. Johnson's protests prompted the mission to cancel the celebration and prompted the Claretians to accelerate discussions to reach a settlement, Johnson said. As part of that settlement, Richard Leamy, an attorney for the Claretians, produced a letter proving Wellems had resigned and petitioned Pope Francis for removal. The Claretians also agreed to put $25,000 toward legal expenses.

Despite Johnson's insistence during settlement negotiations, the order still has not made the names of credibly accused priests available to the public.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.