Illinois clergy sex abuse report: How bishops protected accused priests

Illinois priest bishop abuse Father Frederick Lenczycki (left) admitted to abusing more than 30 children in three states; Bishop Joseph Imesch of the Diocese of Joliet had recommended him for a transfer without disclosing allegations against the priest. | Credit: Illinois Department of Corrections; Diocese of Joliet

The Illinois attorney general’s “Report on Catholic Clergy Child Sex Abuse in Illinois,” released Tuesday, found nearly 2,000 substantiated claims of child sex abuse from 541 Catholic clerics over 70 years and alleged numerous examples of intentional cover-ups and inadequate responses from bishops. 

“Decades of Catholic leadership decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul said in a statement. 

The report showed examples of bishops and archbishops transferring accused child abusers to other parishes or other dioceses while failing to make the public aware of allegations against them. 

It also shows examples of accused priests being disciplined and put back into ministry only to be accused of repeating their actions elsewhere. 

What follows are just a few examples of the many such cases revealed in the report.

A bishop who transferred abusers

Bishop Joseph Imesch of the Diocese of Joliet is named in the report for having “engaged in a pattern of keeping cleric abusers in circulation in the diocese without restriction.” 

Imesch, who served as bishop of Joliet from 1979 to 2006, testified in 2005 that he kept priests in ministry even though he knew they had credible allegations made against them. He died in 2015 at the age of 84.

Father Frederick Lenczycki is one of the priests Imesch is accused of covering for. Ordained in 1972, Lenczycki was accused of molesting at least nine altar boys in the 1980s.

The priest then sent letters to Imesch, in which he admitted to “sexually act[ing] out” and “abuse [of] people.” 

The bishop sent him to a Church-run treatment facility in California and then recommended him for an assignment in San Francisco without disclosing the sex abuse. He then moved to a parish in Missouri.

Lenczycki eventually admitted to abusing 30 children in all three states. He was not removed from ministry until 2002. In 2004 he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three children in Illinois, and in 2019 he pleaded guilty to two counts of sodomy on children in Missouri. 

An abusive priest protected by three bishops

In the Diocese of Belleville, Father Raymond Kownacki was transferred between dioceses after he was accused of sexually abusing minors and forcing a girl to have an abortion. 

The girl, named Gina, met the priest when she was 16 years old and alleges that he raped her and then convinced her parents to let her live with him as a housekeeper. During this time, the report states she became pregnant and he forced her to have an abortion against her wishes. The report also says he admitted to her that he abused other minors.

The report notes that Gina informed Bishop Albert Zuroweste of the abuse in 1973 but that the bishop transferred Kownacki to another parish in April of the same year. The bishop praised the priest’s “knowledge, piety, prudence, experience, and general character” while recommending him for the transfer. 

After Kownacki faced credible accusations at his new parish, the newly ordained Bishop John Wurm transferred him to yet another parish, where he was accused of abusing more children. 

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In August 1984, Kownacki was placed on sick leave after facing allegations of sexually abusing minors. Less than a year later, the newly ordained Bishop James Keleher transferred him to a new parish where he was again accused of sexually abusing minors. This was the third bishop to transfer him after sexual abuse allegations. He was eventually removed from ministry in 1995 under Bishop Wilton Gregory’s leadership but was never convicted of any crimes.

Eight parish assignments in 15 years

Another example in the Diocese of Springfield shows that one priest, Father Walter Weerts, had eight parish assignments in fewer than 15 years under the leadership of Bishop William O’Connor. 

In 1962, during his second assignment, the parents of a young boy alleged the priest had wrestled with their son nude. Eight other families made similar allegations about the priest’s interactions with their children by the end of the following week. The bishop did not take any action and the priest allegedly abused at least 22 boys. 

Chicago’s ‘treat and return to ministry’ policy

The report also scrutinized the Archdiocese of Chicago’s official policy on handling these cases from 1960 until 1992. The policy, known as the therapeutic model, required priests to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment if necessary. Then, it would return them to ministry if the diocese believed they had been properly treated. 

According to the report, at least 32 priests were accused of sexually abusing children during this period. Despite the treatment efforts, at least 19 of them were accused of sexually abusing more children afterward. This is a recidivism rate of nearly 60%. 

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These are only a few of the many accounts provided in the report. 

‘All too common’ 

Melanie Sakoda, survivor support coordinator at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told CNA that the abuse and cover-ups described in the report are “all too familiar” and “all too common.” 

“They’re going all around to different parts of the country,” Sakoda said. “That’s what’s disturbing.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops unanimously approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, which adopted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and ordered systematic changes. 

Dioceses named in the attorney general’s report released statements to express sadness, apologize for past actions, and highlight reforms that have taken place in recent years.

“The changes our diocese enacted have proven to be effective as we are not aware of a single incident of sexual abuse of a minor by clergy alleged to have occurred in this diocese in nearly 20 years,” Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield said in a statement. 

Similarly, Bishop Ronal Hicks of Joliet said: “Currently, no cleric with a substantiated allegation against him is in active ministry in our diocese.”

Sakoda told CNA that there needs to be “personal consequences” for bishops who cover up sex abuse and some “should be criminally prosecuted.” At this stage, she said she believes the problem is “still persisting.” 

“People who are in the pews need to be aware of this,” Sakoda added. 

Sakoda encouraged people who are victims of abuse or know of abuse to “go straight to law enforcement.” She said reports should go to the attorney general’s office, the district attorney, or the police. 

Some victims are afraid to report sexual abuse, but “there are people who will believe you and support you,” she said.

“If you’re a survivor and haven’t come forward, don’t suffer alone and in silence,” Sakoda said. 

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