Tearful Priest: 'I'm Innocent'

Chicago Sun-Times
May 8, 2002

Saying he was standing up for all priests falsely accused of sexually abusing children, an Elmhurst pastor said Tuesday the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet was wrong to remove him from his ministry while it investigates sexual-abuse allegations against him.

"I don't think it's fair," said the Rev. John F. Barrett, pastor of Mary Queen of Heaven parish since 1966.

His comments marked the first time a Chicago area priest accused of abuse has come forward to defend himself since the clergy sex-abuse scandal began unfolding earlier this year.

The Joliet diocese said Sunday it was placing Barrett, 69, on "temporary administrative leave" while investigating allegations made in 1991 by a man, now 47, that Barrett abused him 34 years ago. The man was a student then at Notre Dame elementary school in Clarendon Hills.

"There is no truth to these accusations," a tearful Barrett, clutching a copy of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's memoir, The Gift of Peace, told reporters he called to the Oak Brook office of his lawyer. "I am innocent. My reputation has been tarnished, and I wonder how I am supposed to refute unsubstantiated and terribly false accusations."

Bernardin, who died in 1996, was accused in 1994 of sexually abusing a former Cincinnati seminarian in the 1970s. Bernardin's accuser, who was dying of AIDS, eventually stopped pursuing the allegations against the cardinal, saying he could no longer trust his memory.

"I was reading this book last night," Barrett said of Bernardin's memoir, "and I told my sisters, 'He stole all my lines.' I stand here for all the guys that are falsely accused."

His accuser, whose identity neither the diocese nor Barrett and his attorney would reveal, said he recalled the alleged sexual molestation during counseling years later, Barrett said.

"The allegation was made, and I was asked whether it was true, and I said no," Barrett said. "And they apparently tried to contact him and, to my understanding, he did not show up for the appointment."

A few years later, the man showed up at Barrett's parish "to try to get me to admit to something," Barrett said.

The priest's attorney, Aldo Botti, threatened Tuesday to sue the man for slander if he levels allegations against the priest again.

Neither Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch nor Sister Judith Davies, sole spokesperson for the Joliet diocese, could be reached Tuesday. Since January, the suburban diocese has removed 10 priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors.

"I have talked to the bishop," Barrett said. "He was upset that these things had to happen, and he wished it could be otherwise, but he felt that the lawyers were telling him he had to do this. I feel very strongly that he is on my side."

About 75 parishioners gathered at Botti's office to show support for Barrett. Milt Honel of Elmhurst, a Mary Queen of Heaven parishioner, said he was critical of the American cardinals when they returned from Rome last week without a "zero-tolerance" policy for priests who abuse children. Then, he heard about Barrett. "Here I was very critical of the cardinals, yet when it's in our backyard and it's my pastor, I feel they should have been much more careful before they release stuff like this."


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