In light of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that detailed how the Catholic dioceses there systematically hid child abuse by clergy members, could a similar course of action take place in the Belleville Diocese and Southern Illinois?
The Belleville Diocese has removed 15 priests since 1993 because of credible allegations of child sexual abuse. But whether a Pennsylvania-type grand jury investigation could happen locally remains to be seen.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan on Thursday announced she plans to meet with dioceses from around the state after seven priests with Illinois connections were listed in the Pennsylvania report.
The seven priests do not immediately appear to have worked in Southern Illinois.
It was not immediately clear whether any of those seven priests have Southern Illinois connections.
“The Catholic Church has a moral obligation to provide its parishioners and the public a complete and accurate accounting of all sexually inappropriate behavior involving priests in Illinois,” Madigan said in a news release.
Madigan added, “I plan to reach out to the other dioceses in Illinois to have the same conversation and expect the bishops will agree and cooperate fully. If not, I will work with states attorneys and law enforcement throughout Illinois to investigate.”
If an investigation did open up, the diocese would cooperate, said Monsignor John Myler, spokesman for the Belleville Diocese.
“For the sake of the victims — and for the sake of doing what is right and just — the diocese does act in cooperation with law enforcement,” Myler said. “Having cooperated in the past, the diocese would do so in the future.”
Bishop Edward Braxton, who leads the Belleville Diocese, which covers Southern Illinois, said in a prepared statement this week that sexual abuse of children is the greatest crisis facing the Catholic Church.
He said accusations against a former church cardinal from Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania grand jury report are disturbing.
“These deeply disturbing events not only cause anger, frustration, disappointment and bewilderment in the minds and hearts of Catholic laity and clergy, they also force us to face an obvious truth,” Braxton said. “Every ordained minister of the church, like every baptized lay person, is a redeemed sinner in need of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. There are no perfect priests and no perfect bishops, just as there are no perfect Christians.”
“I will continue to make every effort to make sure that no such immoral actions occur in the Diocese of Belleville in the years ahead,” Braxton added.
In Missouri, Attorney General Josh Hawley on Thursday announced that the St. Louis Archdiocese has volunteered to open its records to the attorney general’s office for an inquiry into any potential abuse in the church. The Belleville diocese is not under the St. Louis archiocese.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said he does not have authority to have a grand jury conduct an investigation like the one in Pennsylvania.
Kelly, who is the Democratic nominee in the 12th Congressional District, pointed out that the previous statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases has been eliminated. It was a bill that he testified in favor of in front of an Illinois Senate committee.
“I believe where we do have evidence of that, we should be able to pursue it,” Kelly said. “I think the alleged larger problem within the diocese of Belleville has been pretty well-covered over the years, but if there is new information that comes forward, and we have cause to do so, we’ll certainly investigate it. And as I’ve said, we’ve prosecuted folks where they are clergy, or not clergy, whatever denomination they are. I think it’s a good move we made in Illinois to eliminate that statute of limitations.”
Kelly’s office is currently prosecuting the Rev. Gerald Hechenberger, a Mascoutah priest who is accused of possessing child porn and methamphetamine.
His office also has prosecuted cases that involve members of churches in other denominations, including:
- Jeffrey Strait, a Fairview Heights Baptist Church deacon who was convicted of aggravated sexual abuse and aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to six years in prison,
- Dennis Theurer, who was a church elder at Edgemont Bible Church and was sentenced to 14 years in prison for a molestation conviction,
- and James Schoppen, a church volunteer in O’Fallon, who is charged with criminal sexual assault.
“We have had allegations on the abuse of children that have been in the context of the alleged offender being part of clergy versus not being part of clergy,” Kelly said.
The full statement released this week by Bishop Edward Braxton:
As I have said many times, the terrible reality of Catholic Priests sexually abusing children is the greatest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. It is a crisis because of the grave crime and the grave sin of the sexual abuse of children and because the response of the leadership of the Catholic Church has, in some cases, not been swift and effective. More than that, there have been instances in which Bishops have ignored, rejected, or even concealed credible evidence of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
This crisis has led to profoundly painful experiences for everyone in the Catholic Church, but most importantly, in the lives of the abuse victims and their families. It has also had a significant impact on the morale of the majority of priests who are not guilty of such heinous offenses. As a result, growing numbers of Catholic people feel alienated from the Catholic Church which is,and should always be, the Sacrament of the encounter with Jesus Christ.
We have recently learned that 88-year-old Theodore McCarrick, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C., has been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors when he was a young priest. We have also learned from the August 14,2018, Pennsylvania Grand Jury finding that in six Catholic Dioceses in the state, over a period of 70 years (dating back to 1947), over 300 priests were credibly accused of sexually abusing more than a thousand minors and, in some cases, individual Bishops concealed these crimes and did not report them to law enforcement. These deeply disturbing events not only cause anger, frustration, disappointment and bewilderment in the minds and hearts of Catholic laity and clergy, they also force us to face an obvious truth. Every ordained minister of the Church, like every baptized lay person, is a redeemed sinner in need of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. There are no perfect Priests and no perfect Bishops, just as there are no perfect Christians.
In our own Diocese, we are continuing to feel the effects of the fact that nearly 15years ago, 15 priests were removed from their ministry because of credible child sexual abuse allegations made against them. As a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, I have followed this unfolding crisis with great attention,concern, and prayer. I will continue to make every effort to make sure that no such immoral actions occur in the Diocese of Belleville in the years ahead. Representatives of the Bishops of the United States are in conversation with the Holy See to find appropriate ways of holding accountable the Bishops accused of sexual abuse themselves or of concealing abuse committed by others. We faithfully follow all the requirements for child protection and safety in our parishes,schools, and other institutions. Our policy is that any Priest coming into the Diocese for any pastoral activity must provide a testimonial of suitability from his home Diocese or religious community. I remind everyone in the Diocese that if you seriously believe that a member of the clergy has sexually abused a minor, or if you yourself have been abused, you have an obligation first of all to report this to civil authorities and second of all to report this to the Diocese of Belleville making use of our Abuse Hotline at: 1-800-640-3044. You may do this anonymously if you wish.At the same time, I urge you to continue to support, encourage, and pray for the good and holy Priests who faithfully serve you every day. Our faith, as Catholics, is not rooted in our belief in Priests, Bishops, or the Holy Father, himself. Our faith is rooted in our belief in the power of the Holy Spirit revealing the mystery of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That faith is lived out by imperfect Christians in the sacramental life of the Church which supports us in our journey from God to God. Nevertheless, with you, I acknowledge that this deepfaith can be shaken by the fact that some Priests and Bishops, who are teachers of the faith, have betrayed the trust that you, and especially your children,have placed in them.
His Holiness, Pope Francis, has been deeply distressed and challenged by this crisis. He was visibly shaken when he learned about the widespread sexual abuse of minors in Chile, and he acknowledged that he had not responded sufficiently when he was informed that a Chilean Bishop had concealed sexual abuse. He has announced that on his Pastoral Visit to the Catholic Church in Dublin, Ireland(August 25-27, 2018), he will meet personally with individuals who were abused during their youth. Responding directly to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury findings, the Pontiff has written a personal letter to the Christian Faithful all over the world. I ask that this letter be inserted in your parish bulletins this weekend, placed on your parish websites, and shared with the Principals, teachers and faculty members of our elementary and secondary Catholic schools. I also ask the Celebrant of this Mass to read the letter of the Roman Pontiff to you in its entirety so that you will hear the words of the Bishop of Rome himself.Please take the Holy Father’s letter home with you, read it over, discuss it with your family members and friends, and pray about its contents. Even though this letter from the Vatican is unprecedented, it is only a step in what will necessarily be a long road to forgiveness, healing, and spiritual renewal in the Catholic Church. I invite every one of you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, to join me in fervent and frequent prayer for conversion in the life of the Church.
Prayerfully yours in Christ,
The Rev. Edward K. Braxton