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More priests likely to sue

Clerics say court is only defense

By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
Published December 3, 2006

When two brothers confided to a Roman Catholic priest in May that their family priest had abused them years ago, they never intended to face the accused clergyman in court.

But after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago removed Rev. Robert Stepek from the pulpit of St. Albert the Great in Burbank last month over the allegations, the priest decided that the best way to clear his name was to sue his accusers.

Last week, Stepek joined a handful of Catholic priests who have sought to prove in a court of law that the abuse accusations against them are false. He also appealed to the Vatican for a reversal of his removal from the ministry.

Victims advocates condemn such lawsuits as a threat that will discourage survivors of clergy sexual abuse from coming forward.

Stepek's suit is "a hardball legal tactic that is unbecoming of an alleged spiritual figure," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"Stepek is simply trying to intimidate other witnesses and victims," she said. "Just because a priest has a legal right to sue others, he doesn't have a moral right to do so."

But experts predict that more priests will turn to the civil courts as dioceses increasingly agree to settle claims out of court and remove accused priests from ministry without going to trial.

"The priests feel they are getting no hearing, no real defense, or real opportunity to defend themselves in the church," said Joseph Maher, president of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Detroit non-profit organization whose Latin name means "work for the good of the priesthood."

"They actually feel they are treated more justly and fairly in the civil realm than they are in the church realm," he said.

Stepek's lawyer, Phillip Zisook, declined requests to interview his client for this story.

The case against Stepek started at a wedding rehearsal in February, shortly after Rev. Daniel McCormack was removed from his West Side parish and accused of abusing five boys--a case that dominated headlines and forced the archdiocese to overhaul the way it handles abuse allegations.

In conversation, the older of the two brothers expressed concerns to the presiding priest that other perpetrators were still in the ministry.

Three months later, at his son's baptism, the man disclosed he was referring to Stepek, who he said abused him and his younger brother in the early 1980s at St. Symphorosa parish in Chicago.

In an interview last week, the older brother said he spent nights with Stepek in the rectory, where alcohol and pornography were present. He also reported inappropriate encounters with Stepek in a locker room but declined to give further details.

Mandatory abuse reports

Under state law, priests are mandated to report abuse allegations to the authorities unless they are heard during confession. The priest in whom the brother confided notified the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the archdiocese, then called the man to say what he had done.

Cardinal Francis George immediately asked the priest to take a leave while DCFS and prosecutors investigated. Following a recommendation by the archdiocesan review board in November, the cardinal suspended Stepek from all forms of ministry.

Last week, Stepek sued his accusers, contending that the brothers defamed him by concocting false allegations as retribution for earlier slights.

The suit states that Stepek never wrote a letter of recommendation for Niles College that the older brother had sought.

It also alleges the younger brother threatened to retaliate after Stepek refused to pay him for installing machinery at the parish, work Stepek said the man did not complete.

In the suit, the younger brother is John Doe 1 and the older is John Doe 2. The Tribune is not identifying them because they are potential victims of sexual abuse.

About a dozen priests across the country have sued their accusers in an effort to restore their reputation--most of them unsuccessfully.

In Chicago, the late Rev. Robert Lutz countersued his accusers in 1994 and won. Lutz continued to minister at his Northbrook parish until he retired.

Critics say to use church system

Victims advocates say priests should work within the church system to defend themselves. They recommend following the example of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was accused in a lawsuit in 1993. The accuser recanted the following year, saying his memory was unreliable.

Bernardin "took the high road," said Blaine.

Maher said the decision of whether to sue is difficult for any priest. While he advises priests to avoid lawsuits, he understands why some go that route.

"Virtually every priest who has been falsely accused, who can profess his innocence, has agonized over this," Maher said. "We're not talking about somebody who's gone through a divorce. When a priest is accused, it's over. His entire life is gone absolutely in totality. There's nothing to compare to it."

Guidelines drafted by U.S. Catholic bishops in 2002 for dealing with abuse allegations include provisions for preserving an accused priest's reputation, said Teresa Kettelkamp, director of the bishops' office for child and youth protection.

The guidelines say dioceses should provide priests with civil and canonical counsel, but only to defend themselves.

"I don't think the intent there was to retain civil and canonical counsel to sue," Kettelkamp said.

The Chicago archdiocese pays legal defense fees for its priests based on financial need, but it does not provide funds for a priest to initiate a lawsuit.

Parishioners from Stepek's former parish in Burbank are taking up a collection to cover his legal fees. Heather Wieglos said the parish would soon send a petition of 2,000 signatures to the cardinal requesting Stepek's return.

"We all know he is innocent," she said. "This time they got the wrong one."

Stepek's lawyer, Zisook, said that if the accusers recant he would discuss with his client whether to drop the suit, which seeks $1 million in damages.

The older brother, a former priest who is now a father of three, said he and his brother are not seeking money. But they also won't back down until Stepek is removed permanently from ministry.

"I will make sure I am protected, my family is protected and make sure the right thing is done to make sure justice prevails," he said. "I have been a victim once and I will not be a victim a second time."





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