Exactly 30 Years Before Illinois AG’s Devastating Sexual Abuse Report, a Plan for Prevention was Implemented, Then Scrapped

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“Way too damned little and way too damned late.”

That’s what one life-long Illinois Catholic woman I’ll call “Margaret” told me last week when the state’s attorney general released a nearly 700-page report, based on a five-year investigation, that concluded at least 2,000 kids were sexually abused by 451 priests.

But what has many both outside and inside the church so infuriated is the even-more-shocking charge being leveled by the attorney general that six Illinois bishops are refusing, even now, to post, on their diocesan websites, the names of some 149 clerics accused of sexually abusing children who are or have been in Illinois.

And why, apart from the fact that it’s obviously the right thing, should the bishops do this? Because, as the state’s top law enforcement authority stresses, each of these men is already listed on official public church websites elsewhere and is deemed “credibly” accused by official church prelates and panels.

A distraught Margaret was convinced that much of the horror could have long ago been preventedor at the very least exposed. She quickly summarized a long-ago and now largely forgotten scandal that took place in Belleville, Illinois, where she livesa scandal in which I’d played a role, and which shaped two decades of subsequent abuse-survivor activism.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but until I listened to her, and read Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s jaw-dropping document, I hadn’t really put it all into perspective. But within minutes of our talk, I fully understood and shared her dismay at the report and its timing.

Here’s why.

Thirty years ago, a cataclysm turned a tiny midwestern diocese upside down. Almost no one seems to recall an unprecedented eruption that claimed nearly ten percent of the clerics in this diocese in less than two years.

It started with Rev. Jerome Ratterman. Two weeks later, it was Rev. James Calhoun and Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, and after one more week, it was Rev. David Crook. Again, this was just in the first month. The next month, it was Rev. Robert Chlopecki, and in May it was Rev. Eugene Linnemann and Deacon Francis Theis. The next month, it was Rev. Edwin Kastner and a few months later it was Rev. Louis Peterson and Rev. Walter MacPherson. Each one a Belleville cleric. Each publicly removed from his parish because of allegations of child sexual abuse. No diocese has ever lost so many clergymen so quickly and so publicly due to reports of sexually abusing children.

Eventually, the New York Times and a handful of other national outlets picked up the story, which included salacious allegations, like a “sex ring” at a shrine (with clergymen using female nicknames for one another) and a priest who reportedly performed an abortion on a teen he impregnated.

To understand how unprecedented and shocking this all was, remember: it all happened more than a decade before horrific clergy sex crimes and cover-ups were exposed by the Boston Globe reporters and editors portrayed in the award-winning film Spotlight.

But why were so many clerics “outed” in Belleville of all places? And how has Belleville fared since?

As is so often the case, unearthing this long-buried scandal began with a reporter who listened sensitively to a person who had been wronged—an abuse survivor—and an editor with a spine who authorized a page-one story critical of a local powerhouse, the Catholic diocese. Dozens of subsequent stories were pursued, thanks to a savvy and dogged investigative reporter, the Belleville News Democrat’s Marilyn Vise, who patiently found still-timid survivors and gently urged them  to speak up and tell their stories.

Belleville and the much larger St. Louis, just 20 minutes apart, are both part of the same metro area which had and still has two daily newspapers. The papers each rushed to cover the crisis, though the Belleville News Democrat far outstripped the Post-Dispatch in both breadth and depth.

At that time, St. Louis had a fairly new but quite energetic chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), which I led for 30 years. Our members frequently stood outside Belleville area churches, handing out leaflets, doing media interviews and begging those who saw or suffered abuse to come forward. Notably, the earliest localized clergy sex abuse scandals—like the one in the Lafayette Louisiana Diocese, for example—predated both the Internet and the formation of support groups like SNAP. 

All this happened in the time before some alleged predators sued their accusers, the journalists, and even the diocese who suspended them. (This is more common than many church members and observers would expect.) Sadly, I suspect that the aggressive PR tactics and hardball legal strategies deployed over the past few years by clerics who commit and conceal child sexual abuse have successfully intimidated many victims and whistleblowers, keeping them silent for fear of retribution.

These factors, and others, led Belleville Bishop James Keleher and later, Bishop Wilton Gregory, to temporarily chart a surprisingly bold new course.

For decades, perhaps even longer, when abuse reports were made, most predator priests were shuffled elsewhere; not ousted from ministry, just relocated. And when these priests were ousted, that too was kept quiet. Belleville church officials, however, announced each suspension publicly and often promptly held an open meeting with parishioners. It gave victims validation, and for many it provided some closure and healing.

What this new path revealed is that abuse victims, even those hurt by representatives of a powerful and popular institution, will overcome their fear and skepticism and come forward under two conditions. First, if they are gently and repeatedly urged to by those who help them feel supported and heard. Second, if they see or believe that progress is in fact possible (i.e. predators will not only be outed and removed, but preventive measures will be taken) and that their courage will make a difference.

Just one or two Catholic officials willing to break from a secretive culture can also make a difference, though sadly, deeply rooted patterns of institutional self-preservation and secrecy are far more resistant to change.

The trajectory of the two primary organizations that butted heads in Belleville in the 1990s would be affected for years to come.

SNAP largely stopped holding small private meetings with individual bishops as it became apparent that trying to convince well-entrenched bishops to care more about kids and do more to protect them was fundamentally futile. Public pressure, not private persuasion, would result in far more progress.

Instead, the focus shifted to media coverage as a way of pressuring bishops and—just as important—of finding victims in need of support.

And while a tiny segment of the Catholic hierarchy of the Belleville diocese had begun to act more responsibly and honestly about abuse, this change was short-lived. Even more sadly, the larger organization, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, had—and has—apparently learned nothing from the Belleville crisis.

For the rest of the decade, in the rest of the nation’s chancery offices, the goal remained the same: do and say little about clergy sex crimes, quietly move predators when allegations surface, and insist—to the public and parishioners—that every case is an aberration.

A tremendous teachable moment was dismissed.

Virtually nothing in the way the U.S. Catholic hierarchy dealt with sexual abuse changed until the deluge of 2002, when the ground-breaking investigative work of the Boston Globe exposed Cardinal Law’s recklessness and deceit.

So when compared with the U.S. Catholic hierarchy as a whole, it’s clear that Belleville church officials had a significant jump start on responding to predator priests in the public arena. One would imagine then that Belleville’s current bishop would be among the nation’s leading clerics on handling abuse reports properly.

Sadly, he’s not.

The crisis in this tiny diocese (with around 100 priests) continues. In 2019, Deacon Robert J. Lanter, was arrested and charged with sexual assault. In 2020, one Belleville cleric was suspended for “inappropriate conduct with a child” (Rev. Anthony Onyango) and two more, both of whom had since died, were put on the diocesan “credibly accused” list (Rev. Arthur Niemeyer and Rev. Thomas Miller).

Which brings full circle to the attorney general’s report, which accuses six bishops of refusing to take even some of the most basic measures to ensure the safety of children and others in their care. Among those bishops is current Belleville Bishop Michael McGovern who, despite his diocese’s history, is no better than the vast majority of his U.S. peers when it comes to the church’s much promised “transparency” with abuse. 

The crisis in Belleville in the early 1990s could have been a pivotal moment for the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, but it was not. The reckoning with abuse and cover up that came 10 years later could have happened much sooner, as my Belleville friend Margaret so keenly understood. But that didn’t happen. As most survivors and many who’ve read Attorney General Raoul’s report agree, the U.S. Catholic hierarchy still refuses to make the necessary changes, in Illinois or elsewhere.