Accused Priest Says Inquiry Will Clear Name

By David Heinzmann
Chicago Tribune
May 8, 2002

A priest accused of sexually abusing a boy 34 years ago took the unusual step of demanding Tuesday that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet investigate the claim immediately so that he can be cleared and resume his work as a suburban pastor.

At his lawyer's office, a tearful Rev. John Barrett said Tuesday that the allegation of sexual abuse hanging over his head is false and he has been wrongly swept into the sexual misconduct scandal gripping the Catholic Church.

"I am innocent--my reputation has been tarnished," the 69-year-old pastor of Mary Queen of Heaven Church in Elmhurst said in a news conference called to rebut the charges. "I want to get this investigation going as quickly as possible. The end result will be good, but it's going to take a long time to get from Good Friday to Easter Sunday."

Holding a book by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin--who faced accusations of sexual abuse that were later recanted--Barrett said he was speaking out for all priests who have been wrongly accused. He raised questions about a possible flip side to what some say is too much secrecy in the church--that naming priests who are simply accused can also be damaging. His accuser's side of the story remains murky, told only in second-hand fragments by the diocese and by Barrett.

The alleged victim, now in his late 40s, first made his charge to the diocese in 1991, but the diocese said it was not able to interview him about his charge that he was abused in the 1960s.

Barrett was one of four Joliet diocese priests removed from duty and named by Bishop Joseph Imesch on Sunday. Allegations against the other three have been substantiated, but diocesan officials stressed Sunday that Barrett was placed on temporary leave for an allegation that was lodged in 1991. Diocesan officials were unable to substantiate the claim then by a man who said he was molested when he was a student at Notre Dame Catholic School in Clarendon Hills in 1968. The case was among those that the diocese turned over to Will County and DuPage County prosecutors last week.

Barrett's lawyer, former DuPage County Board Chairman Aldo Botti, lashed out at church officials for publicly naming the priest without any evidence.

In reply, the diocese released a statement: "The Diocese of Joliet shares Father Barrett's hope for a just and speedy resolution of this matter."

Barrett said Imesch told him he had no choice but to remove Barrett until the allegation is fully investigated.

"He was upset that these things had to happen and he wished it could be otherwise, but the lawyers were telling him he had to do this," Barrett said, recalling his conversation with Imesch. "I think he acted according to what he had to do legally, but I don't think it's fair."

Different policy in Chicago

A spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago said that under its policies, priests who stand accused of abuse are not put on leave or named until an investigation finds the charges to be credible.

Clutching a copy of Bernardin's book, "The Gift of Peace," Barrett began his statement Tuesday by saying, "I agree and acknowledge that pedophilia is a criminal offense and those convicted of the offense should be punished according to the law. I deny that I have ever committed an act of pedophilia. I can only profess my innocence. I pray for the alleged victim as well as the Roman Catholic Church, which I have faithfully and honorably served for almost 43 years."

Diocesan officials did not release any details about the allegations against Barrett, but the priest himself said Tuesday that the alleged victim accused him as a result of a so-called recovered memory while undergoing therapy. Although the alleged victim did not meet with diocese officials to make his case in 1991, Barrett said that a few years later the man confronted him on the front steps of his church after mass and asked him to admit the abuse.

He said he was praying for the man and bore him no animosity, but he believes his memory of the incident is false.

Referring to Bernardin's ordeal of being falsely accused of sexual abuse by a Cincinnati man in 1993, Barrett said he was up late Monday night reading the cardinal's account of how he survived the allegation. Bernardin endured five months of public humiliation while former seminarian Steven Cook's allegations and $10 million lawsuit made headlines. After Cook dropped the allegations, Bernardin forgave him publicly and reached out personally to help counsel the AIDS victim.

Barrett said he took and passed a polygraph test last week that was arranged by his attorney.

"He's not going to take this sitting down, and he's not going to have his reputation ruined," Botti said.

Despite the allegations, Barrett's reputation is unblemished with many of the people he has served over the years.

Parishioners show support

About 100 of Barrett's parishioners, former parishioners and friends swarmed the lobby of Botti's office Tuesday, carrying signs of support and bursting into applause and tears when they spotted the priest.

They were unanimous in their belief that Barrett has been wrongly accused.

"He strongly denies it, and he's not a liar. I've known him for seven years, and he's always on the up and up on everything he does," said Gloria Wagnecht, who cooks and cleans for the priest two days a week.

Wagnecht said she was not angry at the diocese for naming Barrett.

"They have to investigate it to protect children," she said. "But the truth will prevail. I'm here because I want to make it very clear. And I'm going to fight for him."

Parishioner Renee Bladek said that Barrett has been an indispensable spiritual guide for the parish, his love for the flock is genuine and his Sunday homilies are always relevant to the lives of the people in the pews.

At Notre Dame Catholic Church in Clarendon Hills, where the abuse was alleged to have happened, Rev. Robert Schuler, said parishioners still talk about Barrett fondly, although he left more than 20 years ago.

"I have never heard anyone say anything negative about him. Even after so many years he is still fondly remembered here," Schuler said. "I firmly believe he is telling the truth. I've never had any type of suspicion of him."


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