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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 10:16 am

Priestly predilections continue

But diocese screening process does not

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Sexual no-nos among clergy are nothing new in the Diocese of Springfield.

The diocese in 2005 hired a Methodist to figure things out when a priest was severely beaten after soliciting sex in Douglas Park. Accusations of homosexual conduct rose to the very top of the diocese, with one man claiming to have bedded a half-dozen men of the cloth, including then bishop George Lucas.

J. William Roberts, the former U.S. attorney and Sangamon County state’s attorney retained by the diocese to investigate, concluded that the bishop was pure, but other clergy members were not. Daniel Ryan, the bishop prior to Lucas, wasn’t celibate, according to Roberts, and Ryan had fostered a culture of secrecy that resulted in mistrust among parishioners and failure to hold accountable priests who engaged in inappropriate conduct. Eight priests were either removed or placed on leave after the investigation began, Roberts told reporters in 2006.

Clergy misconduct ranged from viewing inappropriate websites to sinful sexual activity between consenting adults to sexual abuse of minors that cost the diocese more than $6 million in legal settlements. The Roberts investigation also revealed misappropriation of church funds.

To guard against such things in the future, the diocese set up a toll-free hotline and an email address where misconduct could be reported. The diocese also established a panel to review candidates for the seminary to help ensure that those who would be priests had proper moral fiber. A special panel that oversaw the Roberts investigation recommended random audits of church computers. The report on the investigation was also posted on the diocesan website.

A half-dozen years later, the diocese has again been hit by an episode of un-priestly conduct that came to light thanks to a 911 call made by Father Tom Donovan, who summoned police at 4:45 a.m. on Nov. 28 because he was trapped in handcuffs inside the St. Aloysius rectory. Officers found him wearing a gag, an orange jumpsuit and a leather mask.

Donovan, who was ordained in 2005, came to Springfield in 2010, the same year that Bishop Thomas Paprocki took over from Lucas. Since becoming bishop, Paprocki has, apparently, dismantled at least one safeguard installed by his predecessor.

Paprocki declined an interview request, but the Roberts report is no longer on the diocesan website. The biography of former bishop Ryan on the website, last edited in May, contains no hint that he engaged in illicit sex or otherwise did anything improper. It’s not clear whether the diocese is conducting computer audits, but the panel that once screened candidates for the seminary is no longer active, according to one panel member.

“I don’t think there is one (a review panel for prospective priests),” said John Mehlick, a former Sangamon County associate judge who had served on the panel set up by the diocese in 2006. “I have not interviewed any new seminarians since the new bishop came.”

The panel that included at least two laypeople had full access to background checks of prospective priests, who were interviewed by panel members who submitted recommendations to the bishop, Mehlick said. Not everyone passed muster, he added, and he felt the panel’s work was productive and important.

“I thought we were looking at people and making sure they were very good candidates,” said Mehlick, who attends St. Aloysius where Father Donovan once presided.

Since 2010, when Paprocki became bishop, the number of seminarians has increased from 11 to 25, according to an October column by the bishop posted on the diocesan website in which Paprocki asked parishioners for contributions to fund the education of prospective priests.

The panel that oversaw the Roberts investigation is still in place, according to Kathie Sass, diocese spokeswoman.

“Fortunately, we haven’t needed it much in the past few years,” Sass wrote in an email.

Stephen Brady of Petersburg, a critic of Lucas and former head of the now-defunct watchdog group dubbed Roman Catholic Faithful, said that he trusts Paprocki to handle the Donovan matter and clean up any other misconduct by clergy.

“Although it may never be made public, I think he’ll do the right thing,” Brady said. “I’m impressed by the man.”

Brady, whose group disbanded in 2010 after he suffered a serious motorcycle accident, said that he has met with the bishop twice since Paprocki came to Springfield and has spoken with him several times.

“Bishop Paprocki is trying to turn things around,” said Brady, who was not aware of the Donovan matter until it was reported by Illinois Times. “The bishop doesn’t need to give all the details.”

If a priest re-enters ministry after misconduct, parishioners should be told about the misconduct as well as any remedy or restitution, according to the 2006 report. Brady said that shouldn’t be an issue with Donovan.

“I don’t think Father Donovan should come back,” Brady said. “I don’t think you can bring someone back with those kinds of problems.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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