Accused Priest in Rock Island Sues Peoria Diocese: "I Am Innocent"
By Linda Cook
Quad Cities Online
March 10, 2020
Sometimes, John Onderko celebrates Mass alone in his home in Rock Island.
Other times, he hears confessions from people who knew him from the old days, before he was barred from priestly duties by the Roman Catholic Church over sexual abuse allegations. A priest for 58 years, Onderko served from June 1981 through June 1993 at St. Mary's in Moline, then was reassigned to LaSalle, Ill., and served at numerous other parishes in Illinois.
Onderko, 83, no longer can publicly represent himself as a priest or engage in any priestly functions. Yet he maintains his innocence. Where other accused priests have quietly retired or admitted their guilt, Onderko is suing the Diocese of Peoria, saying he was denied due process and stripped of priestly duties by a church eager to quell public outcry over the global sex-abuse scandal.
“I am innocent,” he repeated during a recent interview in his lawyer's office, emphasizing his status within the church is restricted but not defrocked. “I categorically deny any abuse of a minor."
Onderko claims the church never told him of the accusations, but he believes they may stem from an incident at a train station in 1964.
He remembers it well, right down to the overalls one man wore. Ordained just two years earlier, Onderko was not wearing his vestments when he "made some very uncharitable remarks” to two men about politics who didn't know he was a priest. After later informing his bishop about the incident, Onderko was dispatched to a retreat in New Mexico — a retreat where, at least in the years that followed, priests accused of abusing children were sent.
Onderko thinks that when diocese officials reviewed priests’ files, they assumed his presence at the retreat had something to do with sexual abuse. His lawyer, John Doak, says the abuse simply never happened. “We quite strongly believe there is no alleged victim.”
The Vatican hosted a summit on sex abuse in the church last year as it came under fire for its handling of the global sex abuse crisis. Over the past 18 months, many Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. have released lists of priests "credibly accused" of misconduct or sexual abuse of children.
In January, ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, compiled a searchable database of the 6,754 Catholic clergy named, noting the dioceses used "their own criteria for whom to include." Thirty-seven of those, including Onderko, served in the Quad-Cities.
The scope of the Catholic church's abuse scandal came into focus for Illinoisans in 2018, when the state's attorney began investigating the Diocese of Peoria and urged it to disclose accused priests. A separate civil lawsuit sought the same outcome.
More than 1,800 priest files were ultimately reviewed, and "any possible allegation of sexually inappropriate behavior with a minor in the broadest sense of the definition was isolated for further review by the Attorney General's office," the diocese said at the time.
Two weeks after the civil lawsuit was filed, the diocese issued a statement including Onderko as one of three more accused priests.
Doak and Onderko say the diocese issued the statement naming Onderko “in an effort to appease donors and the public about the general crisis involving the local leadership." The suit claims the diocese wrongly suggested that "all accused clerics were given appropriate and fair process.”
“I never had a hearing. I have never been told what the accusation is,” Onderko said.
Further, Onderko says shortly before he was named, the district had issued letters of suitability for him, essentially documents that say the bishop is unaware of anything in the priest's background that makes him unsuitable to work around minor children. He said between 2012 and Oct. 18, 2018, the Diocese of Peoria sent at least nine suitability testimonial letters to other dioceses around the United States on his behalf.
The suit calls the diocese's actions “intentional, willful and malicious.”
"The Diocese believes it can do whatever it wants and does not have to answer in a court of law for actions taken, no matter how harmful," Doak said in early March. "In my opinion, this is the same attitude that put the Church in the abuse scandal in the first place."
Onderko said he is speaking out to clear his name, but also in hopes that his situation "would give hope to other priests who might be in similar situations — not to give up.”
Meanwhile, Onderko has lost his pension. In retirement, he bought a small condominium in Rock Island. The suit is scheduled for a case management session on May 21, when both attorneys will appear before a judge.