Lawsuit Names Diocese, Priest
Ex-Seminarian Alleges Sex Abuse by His Teacher

By David Heinzmann
Chicago Tribune
August 20, 2002

A former seminarian who alleges he was abused by a priest in the 1970s filed a lawsuit Monday against the Catholic Diocese of Joliet and the now elderly priest.

The lawsuit alleges that Rev. Carroll Howlin molested the seminarian, J. Michael Powers, in 1975 and 1976, when Powers was a teen in his final years as a high school student at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Will County.

According to the complaint, the abuse took place both at the seminary, where Howlin taught, and during field trips to a mission for the rural poor in southeastern Kentucky. Howlin requested permission to leave the diocese in 1977 in order to work full time with poor families in Kentucky.

He had remained there until Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch removed him from ministry in April after Powers came forward. Church officials have not substantiated the charges, but Imesch turned the complaint over to the Will County state's attorney last spring.

Powers' attorney, Keith Aeschliman, said that the alleged victim, now a 44-year-old husband and father who lives in California, was finally persuaded to come forward this spring by the mounting sexual abuse scandal enveloping the Catholic Church.

Since April, Imesch has removed 10 priests from ministry because of allegations of sexual abuse. In some cases, such as Howlin's, the allegations were new. But in several cases, Imesch acknowledged that he had allowed priests to remain in ministry despite confirmed past incidents of sexual abuse.

As a student at St. Charles Borromeo, which closed in 1981, Powers came into frequent contact with Howlin, who taught at the school from 1967 to 1976, according to the lawsuit.

Howlin relocated to Kentucky and eventually became pastor at the mission. Although he has never returned to work in the Joliet diocese, he is still a priest of the diocese and answers to Imesch.

Reached by telephone at his home Monday in Kentucky, Howlin declined to comment.

The lawsuit states that "while employed at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, [Howlin] systematically sexually molested children entrusted to his care."

It goes on to argue that diocesan officials "knew or should have known of [Howlin's] dangerous and exploitive propensities as a child sexual abuser."

The suit alleges that Imesch and other church officials created an atmosphere of hostility toward victims of abuse by Howlin and other priests, which deterred victims from coming forward. Although the alleged abuse took place during the term of the late Bishop Romeo Blanchette, the lawsuit names Imesch as trustee of the diocese.

Imesch said that he knew nothing of the claim against Howlin before April. The case remains open, Imesch said. But, he said, Diocesan Review Committee members have been stymied in their attempts to investigate Powers' claim because the accuser will not follow up and meet with them.

But Powers is willing to meet with church officials in order to discuss his claims, said his father, a retired car dealer who now lives in Indiana. However, Powers won't go alone because of his perception that officials of the diocese have taken an adversarial tone with victims in the past, his father said.

"We can have my son available at any time," Jack Powers said. "But he's not going in without [his lawyer] and me."

Howlin was accused of sexual abuse by another former seminarian in 1993. At the time diocesan officials asked for more information, but the man declined to cooperate further, Imesch said in April. Howlin was sent for a psychological evaluation, but Imesch's Diocesan Review Committee decided that there was not enough evidence against the priest to keep him out of ministry.


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